Pence Doubles Down

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Despite backlash, Indiana governor defends controversial law

Embattled Indiana Gov. Mike Pence doubled down on his state’s controversial religious freedom law Monday with a strongly-worded op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.

But despite Pence’s assertions to the contrary, several legal experts maintain that the law in question – despite its purported intentions – will allow individuals, organizations and businesses to cite “religious beliefs” as a defense against discrimination lawsuits.

Indiana lawmakers, for their part, appeared divided Monday over how to address the growing backlash against the newly signed religious freedom measure.

In back-to-back press conferences Monday morning, Republican and Democratic leaders presented conflicting analyses over what Senate Bill 101 – otherwise known as the state Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) – would actually do, and conflicting plans over how to ensure that the measure would not allow for discrimination.

Indiana’s state Sen. David Long and House Speaker Brian Bosma, both Republicans, said they would work to pass legislative clarification indicating that the law could not be used to discriminate against anyone. Meanwhile, state Sen. Tim Lanane and state Rep. Scott Pelath, both Democrats, argued that the measure was beyond fixing and required a full repeal.

“They’re going through the stages of grief right now, and they’re stuck in the denial phase,” added Democratic state Rep. Pelath. “They have no sense of how big of problem this is.”

Since it quietly became law Thursday in a private, closed-press signing ceremony, Indiana’s RFRA has been the target of intense criticism from celebrities, politicians, tech leaders, and organizations responsible for funneling millions into the state’s economy. On Sunday, Apple CEO Tim Cook, who is openly gay, penned an opinion piece for The Washington Post, in which he called the wave of religious freedom measures currently surfacing in state legislatures across the country “something very dangerous.” Similarly, Star Trek star George Takei wrote his own op-ed calling for a boycott of Indiana “to help stop the further erosion of our core civil values.” Ex-NBA stars are also putting pressure on the NCAA to pull out of Indianapolis for the Final Four, set to take place next week. And Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy announced on Monday that he would sign an executive order halting state-sponsored travel to Indiana over the legislation.

“When new laws turn back the clock on progress, we can’t sit idly by,” Malloy tweeted. “We are sending a message that discrimination won’t be tolerated.”

But Pence has remained defiant. In an interview on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday, Pence defended his decision to sign the RFRA into law last week, saying that the measure was “about protecting the religious liberty of people of faith and families of faith.” He repeatedly dodged the question of whether the law could be used to deny service to LGBT people.

But LGBT and civil liberties advocates disagree with that analysis, saying that the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision – which found that closely-held corporations wouldn’t have to cover the cost of birth control in line with the Affordable Care Act if the owners had a sincerely-held religious objection to contraception – completely redefined the scope of the federal RFRA, and made it so that state versions could be used to get out of complying with nondiscrimination ordinances and marriage equality laws. Since the federal RFRA was introduced in the early 1990’s, many of the law’s initial backers have grown furious over its use as a license to foist one’s religious beliefs on someone else, rather than as a protective measure against government interference in one’s religious beliefs.

Bosma and Long said they were not likely to pass legislative clarification on the use of RFRA today. “We’ve got some work to do,” Bosma said.

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