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Pence Defends Religious Liberty Law But Pledges to Fix It

Pence Defends Religious Liberty Law But Pledges to Fix It
(Samantha Sais/Reuters/Landov)

By    |   Tuesday, 31 March 2015 11:27 AM

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence pledged Tuesday to "fix" Indiana’s "religious freedom" law even as he defended its intent by stressing that it does not condone discrimination against gays and lesbians.

In a news conference broadcast nationally on Newmax TV and many other news channels Tuesday morning, Pence asked state legislators to pass a fix this week.

"It would be helpful to move legislation this week that makes it clear that this law does not give businesses a right to deny services to anyone," Pence said. "We’ll fix this and we’ll move forward."

"There was never any intention in this law to create a license to discriminate and we’ll clarify that," Pence said. "It’s important to me in this process and we’ll do it in legislation."

The conservative Midwestern governor's statement came a day after Indiana’s top state legislators announced they were working on a legislative fix to clarify the law's intent, and following an intense backlash against the law, especially from the business community in Indiana and across the country.

Pence also said he found "highly offensive" the criticisms lodged against Indiana and its residents after the law's passage last week. He blamed the media and critics partly for  perceptions that the new law would allow discrimination against gays and lesbians.

"We want to make it clear that Hoosier Hospitality is not a slogan, it's our way of life," he said.

Since signing the bill, Pence has faced a barrage of criticism from top business executives, celebrities and civil rights groups who fear it would allow discrimination against gays and lesbians.

A number of leading companies, including Apple and its CEO Tim Cook, have blasted Pence and the state Legislature for implementing the law. Pence has consistently since Sunday attempted to "clarify" it's provisions on national television, but he has been widely derided for repeatedly refusing to answer a yes-or-no question regarding whether the law would allow discrimination.

Supporters have said the law is necessary to protect religious freedoms from government intrusion.

Pence has been consistently floated as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, and some critics said that the signing of the bill was designed to buoy those hopes in Republican primaries, where religious conservatives are a potent force.

"If I was in a restaurant and saw a business owner deny services to someone because they were gay, I wouldn’t eat there anymore," Pence repeated on Tuesday.

He also spoke about joining civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis in a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the 45th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when hundreds of activists fighting for civil rights for African-Americans were brutally assaulted by police officers.

One saving grace for Pence: he did get some huge backup from the field of potential 2016 presidential contenders, as former Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sen. Ted Cruz rushed to defend the Indiana law.

The law prohibits state laws that "substantially burden" a person's ability to follow his or her religious beliefs. The definition of "person" includes religious institutions, businesses and associations. 

Also Tuesday, the Indianapolis Star urged Indiana lawmakers in a front-page editorial to respond to widespread criticism of the new law by protecting the rights of gays and lesbians.

The Star's editorial, headlined "FIX THIS NOW," covered the newspaper's entire front page. It called for lawmakers to enact a law that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.

The newspaper says the uproar has "done enormous harm" to the state and potentially to its economic future.

Meanwhile, Arkansas is poised to follow Indiana in enacting a law despite increasing criticism from businesses and gay-rights advocates, who call the laws a license to discriminate.

The Arkansas House could vote as early as Tuesday on a proposal that would prohibit state and local governments from infringing on a person's religious beliefs without a "compelling" reason. And unlike in Indiana — where Republicans were figuring out how to clarify that their law isn't meant to discriminate — Arkansas lawmakers said they won't modify their measure.

"There's not really any place to make any changes now," Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger of Hindsville said about his proposal. "If there are questions, in two years we can fix it."

Hundreds of protesters filled Arkansas' Capitol to oppose the measure, holding signs that read "Discrimination is not a Christian Value" and "Discrimination is a Disease," and chanting "Shame on You" at Ballinger after the measure was endorsed by a House committee.

"I believe that many people will want to flee the state and many people will want to avoid our state," said Rita Jernigan, a protester and one of the lead plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging Arkansas' gay marriage ban. "I think it will hit us hard everywhere. I feel like we're moving backwards rather than being a progressive state."

Similar proposals have been introduced in more than a dozen states, patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Nineteen other states have similar laws on the books.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who had expressed reservations about unintended consequences of an earlier version of the bill, has said he will sign the current measure into law.

"If this bill reaches my desk in similar form as to what has been passed in 20 other states, then I will sign it, but I am pleased that the Legislature is continuing to look at ways to assure balance and fairness in the legislation," Hutchinson said in a statement Monday.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are not included in Arkansas' anti-discrimination protections. Last month, Hutchinson allowed a measure to go into law that prevented local governments from including such protections in their anti-discrimination ordinances.

Opponents of the bill hoped to target Hutchinson's promise to be a "jobs governor" made during his successful bid last year for the state's top office. The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group, has run ads in Silicon Valley aimed at the same technology firms Hutchinson has said he wants to lure to Arkansas.

Cook wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post over the weekend opposing the Arkansas and Indiana measures, while retail giant Wal-Mart has said the proposal sends the wrong message about its home state. Little Rock-based data services company Acxiom also urged Hutchinson to veto the bill, saying the measure would enable discrimination and open the state to ridicule.

"This bill is at direct odds with your position that 'Arkansas is open for business,'" CEO Scott Howe and Executive Vice President Jerry C. Jones wrote Monday in a letter to the governor.

In Indiana, the fallout has ranged from the public employee union known as AFSCME canceling a planned women's conference in Indianapolis this year because of the law to the band Wilco saying it was canceling a May performance.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued an open letter to Indiana corporations saying Virginia is a business-friendly state that does "not discriminate against our friends and neighbors." Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel sent letters to more than a dozen Indiana businesses, urging them to relocate to a "welcoming place to people of all races, faiths and countries of origin."

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Indiana Gov. Mike Pence pledged Tuesday to "fix" Indiana's "religious freedom" law even as he defended its intent by stressing that it does not condone discrimination against gays and lesbians. In a news conference broadcast nationally on many news channels Tuesday morning,...
pence, religious, liberty, law, fix, press, conference
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2015-27-31
Tuesday, 31 March 2015 11:27 AM
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