Pence signs controversial religious freedom bill in Indiana

Greg Nash
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a potential GOP 2016 presidential candidate, signed a controversial religious freedom bill that some critics say sanctions discrimination against gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual individuals.
The bill, which passed through the Indiana Legislature this week, says that the government “may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless it has a strong compelling interest. 
Supporters say the bill is necessary to protect against the government infringing on the religious beliefs of people and business owners. But opponents argue that it could allow for government-sanctioned discrimination of non-heterosexuals through religious justification.
{mosads}Pence defended the law in a statement released after he signed it Thursday. He cited the University of Notre Dame’s challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage as proof the bill is necessary.
“The Constitution of the United States and the Indiana Constitution both provide strong recognition of the freedom of religion, but today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action,” he said
“This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it.”
But Sarah Warbelow, the legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, argued in a statement that the law is both “dangerous and discriminatory” because it allows discrimination based on religion. 
“This new law hurts the reputation of Indiana and will have unacceptable implications for LGBT people and other minorities throughout the state,” she said.  
“Now businesses owners and corporations are forced to consider other options when looking at states to invest in.”
The NCAA, which is holding this year’s Men’s Basketball Tournament Final Four in Indianapolis, panned the law in a statement where it subtlety threatened that it would reevaluate returning to the Hoosier State if the law remained on the books.
“The NCAA national office and our members are deeply committed to providing an inclusive environment for all our events. We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement
“We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week’s Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill. Moving forward, we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce.” 
Other groups that hold conventions in Indiana, including the gaming convention Gen Con, have criticized the law.
Pence, a former U.S. representative and head of the House Republican Conference, is considered a dark-horse candidate to enter the 2016 presidential field. While he hasn’t ruled out a bid and spoke at last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference, he hasn’t made any public steps toward declaring and typically isn’t included in polling.
Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, applauded the law in an email and said other states should follow suit. 
“We commend Indiana for joining 30 other states in protecting the freedom of people to live and work according to their religious beliefs,” he said. “Everyone’s freedom is at risk when the government is empowered to interfere in private affairs and more easily burden religious belief.” 
Pence addressed the law during an interview with Indianapolis conservative radio host Greg Garrison hours after he signed it. He said that while there hasn’t been any recent case threatening religious freedom in Indiana, he called the bill about “restraining government action.”
“I’m not aware of cases and controversies. I mean, as I travel around the state one thing I know for sure: Hoosier hospitality is the greatest in the nation,” Pence said Thursday afternoon, according to audio posted by the Democratic tracking group American Bridge.
“This isn’t about any present controversy, as much as some in the media want to make it about. It’s about making sure that Hoosiers have the same protections in our state courts as they have in federal courts and as 30 other states have.”
The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed in the 1990s, has a similar intent and was used in part as justification for the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which sided with the store’s decision to not extend its employees no-cost contraception because of religious beliefs. 
This story was updated at 5:38 p.m.
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