Indiana backlash grows ahead of Final Four
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The firestorm over a new Indiana law that critics say would allow businesses to refuse service to gay people intensified Monday as Democrats pounced, unions pulled conventions from the state and businesses scrapped expansion plans.

The outcry over the religious freedom statute has rattled Indiana Republican leaders, who are now eyeing "clarifications" to the law in order to quell the backlash that threatens to tarnish the state’s image and hurt its economy.

The controversy is an ill-timed headache for Gov. Mike Pence (R), who's weighing a 2016 presidential run, with his state set to host the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament this weekend.

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Facing pressure to move the games from Indianapolis, NCAA officials are voicing reservations of their own about the religious freedom law.

"We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees," NCAA President Mark Emmert said after the law was signed.

Charles Barkley, a former NBA star who provides television commentary on the NCAA tournament, argued Monday that the Final Four should be moved out of Indiana.

“As long as anti-gay legislation exists in any state, I strongly believe big events such as the Final Four and Super Bowl should not be held in those states’ cities,” he told USA Today.

Confronting the backlash, state GOP leaders staged a news conference Monday morning in Indianapolis where they defended the law against accusations that it promotes discrimination, and vowed to make changes, if need be.

"To the extent that we need to clarify through legislative action that this law does not and will not be allowed to discriminate against anyone, we will do just that," said David Long (R), the president pro tem of the state Senate.

How they tweak the law, if at all, remains to be seen, but the uproar has given Democrats an opening to bash the Republicans as hostile to the gay community and out of touch with voter sentiments.

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonYang expands campaign with senior hires for digital operations Top GOP legislator in California leaves party GOP senators request interview with former DNC contractor to probe possible Ukraine ties MORE said it was "sad" that such a law "can happen in America today." Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.) urged state lawmakers to repeal the "backwards law." And Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the House Democratic whip, likened the measure to the sanctioned discrimination against southern blacks decades ago. 

"Just as the government has no role in promoting or infringing upon individuals' personal religious beliefs, neither does it have the authority to provide official sanction to discrimination of the kind too many Americans experienced during the period of segregation and Jim Crow," Hoyer said in a statement.

Acknowledging that full repeal is a long shot in the state's Republican-dominated legislature, gay rights advocates are pushing a series of changes they say are needed to prevent discrimination.

The advocates want to install language updating state anti-discrimination laws explicitly protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the areas of housing and employment. They also want to clarify that the new law cannot be invoked to defend discrimination barred by other state or local laws.

"The most immediate solution is to clarify the legislation," Adam Talbot, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, said Monday.

Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.), a likely presidential contender, waded into the controversy Monday by stressing the importance of religious liberty.

"As a matter of principle, Gov. Walker believes in broad religious freedom and the right for Americans to exercise their religion and act on their conscience," said AshLee Strong, press secretary for Walker's Our American Revival.

Another likely presidential hopeful, Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTikTok's leader to meet with lawmakers next week GOP senators unveil bill to expand 'opportunity zone' reporting requirements Three dead, several injured in Pensacola naval station shooting MORE (R-Fla.), backed the law as well.

“No one here is saying it should be legal to deny someone service at a restaurant or at a hotel because of their sexual orientation, I think that’s a consensus view in America,” Rubio said Monday on Fox News’s “The Five.”

“The flip side of it is: Should a photographer be punished for refusing to do a wedding that their faith teaches them is not one that is valid in the eyes of God?”

Some Capitol Hill Republicans are treading carefully, searching for a delicate balance between ensuring religious freedom and fighting discrimination. 

“Hoosier hospitality is the hallmark of our state, and I am following closely the ongoing efforts of Gov. Pence and the General Assembly to reinforce that Indiana is a state that protects religious liberty and rejects discrimination,” Sen Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsFormer US intel official says Trump would often push back in briefings Hillicon Valley: Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract in court | State antitrust investigation into Google expands | Intel agencies no longer collecting location data without warrant Intelligence agencies have stopped collecting cellphone data without warrants: letter MORE (R-Ind.) said.

Signed into law on Thursday by Pence, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is designed to protect individuals and businesses from being forced to violate their religious beliefs. Under the law, the state may not "substantially burden a person's exercise of religion" unless it's done in the name of a "compelling government interest." The law takes effect on July 1.

Supporters say it's a common-sense way to prevent the government from encroaching on constitutional rights. Critics contend it empowers individuals and businesses to discriminate against gays without fear of legal recourse.

Nineteen other states have similar religious freedom statutes, modeled on a 1993 federal law signed by Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonThe Hill's Morning Report — Pelosi makes it official: Trump will be impeached Impeachment can't wait Turley: Democrats offering passion over proof in Trump impeachment MORE — a dynamic that Pence and other supporters are quick to note.

Opponents counter that many of those states have separate laws protecting gays from discrimination — laws that Indiana does not have. Opponents are also wary of language in the law that gives explicit rights to for-profit businesses to invoke “the free exercise of religion” — language not included in the federal law.

Appearing Sunday on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” Pence denied that the law promotes discrimination against gays, though he ducked questions about whether it would empower businesses to refuse gay customers legally.

“This is not about discrimination, this is about empowering people to confront government overreach,” he said.

As Indiana's lawmakers weigh their next move, the blowback has continued to swell.

On Monday, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D) signed an executive order barring state-funded travel to Indiana, joining mayors in San Francisco and Seattle who had earlier installed a similar prohibition.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, the most prominent gay figure in the business world, weighed in with a scathing op-ed in The Washington Post in which he characterized such laws as "very dangerous."

"They go against the very principles our nation was founded on, and they have the potential to undo decades of progress toward greater equality," Cook wrote.

In a blow to Indiana's economy, Angie's List has scrapped plans for a possible expansion in Indianapolis, while the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) announced it was moving its annual Women’s Conference, scheduled for October in Indianapolis, out of the state. 

"This un-American law allowing businesses to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers sets Indiana and our nation back decades in the struggle for civil rights," AFSCME President Lee Saunders said in a statement.

— Ben Kamisar contributed.