Indiana’s governor defended a new state law defending religious freedom that’s garnered widespread criticism over concerns it could foster discrimination. Governor Mike Pence said that it wasn’t a mistake to have enacted it. However, under strong pressure, he pledged to introduce language that would “clarify” the bill’s scope.
The measure signed by Governor Pence last week 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.
“This legislation has a long history starting with the 1993 passing of RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act], but now it is being treated like an original notion,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America. “Now freedom of religion is treated as having very low value. It’s a very sad commentary on how quickly the tenure of society has changed.”
RFRA was passed by a unanimous House vote and was intended to “ensure that interests in religious freedom are protected.” The Supreme Court upheld Congress’s right to enforce the measure on a federal level, but largely left state level enforcement up to individual state legislatures.
The legislation is seen largely as an attempt to protect the right of individuals and small organizations to claim religious objections, in anticipation of a possible ruling from the Supreme Court legally protecting immoral lifestyles.
Some national civil rights groups say it’s a way for lawmakers in Indiana and other states where such bills have been proposed this year to essentially grant a state-sanctioned waiver for discrimination against groups that could be protected by the court’s ruling.
Pence said Tuesday he has been meeting with lawmakers “around the clock” to address concerns that the law will allow businesses to deny services to any group.
Supporters of the law, including Pence, contend discrimination claims are overblown and insist it will keep the government from compelling people to provide services they find objectionable on religious grounds. They also maintain that courts haven’t allowed discrimination under similar laws covering the federal government and 19 other states. Arkansas is poised to follow in Indiana’s footsteps, with a final vote expected next week in the state House on legislation that Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he’ll sign.
Since Pence signed the bill into law Thursday, Indiana has been widely criticized by businesses and organizations around the United States. Already, consumer review service Angie’s List has said it will suspend a planned expansion in Indianapolis because of the new law.
Pence told the Indianapolis Star on Saturday that he was in discussions with legislative leaders over the weekend and expects a clarification bill to be introduced in the coming week. He addressed that Sunday, saying, “If the General Assembly … sends me a bill that adds a section that reiterates and amplifies and clarifies what the law really is and what it has been for the last 20 years, then I’m open to that.”
But Pence was adamant that the measure, slated to take effect in July, will stick. “We’re not going to change this law,” Pence said.
State Rep. Ed DeLaney, an Indianapolis Democrat, told a large, boisterous crowd Saturday gathered outside of the Statehouse to protest the law because it creates “a road map, a path to discrimination.” People at the rally chanted, “Pence must go!” and held signs that read, “No hate in our state.”
Pence addressed the critics Sunday, saying: “This avalanche of intolerance that’s been poured on our state is just outrageous.”
“It’s vital for people of all different religious backgrounds to worry about attacks on RFRA, which is intended to prevent them from being steamrolled by the government,” Eric Rassbach of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty told Hamodia. “What’s going on in Indiana is really an attack on every devoutly religious person in the country.”