INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Mike Pence pledged Tuesday to “fix” Indiana’s controversial religious freedom law to clarify that it does not allow discrimination against gays and lesbians.
But he insisted the problem isn’t the law itself but how it’s being perceived, saying a fix is needed only because of “frankly, the smear that’s been leveled against this law.” And he said the fix won’t involve statewide anti-discrimination protections for LGBT Hoosiers.
The first-term Republican governor sought to tamp down the backlash Indiana has faced since he signed the law — which its in-state supporters had claimed would allow businesses to turn away LGBT customers — last week. He said he’s asking state lawmakers to send him a followup measure before this week’s end to ensure that’s not the case.
“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 in a press conference in Indianapolis on Tuesday.
Pence’s comments come amid intense criticism from major corporations like Apple, Walmart and tech giant Salesforce against Indiana’s law and similar measures advancing in at least a dozen other states this year. The NCAA, which is set to host its men’s basketball Final Four in Indianapolis, has said it could move events elsewhere in the future.
Republican contenders for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination, meanwhile, have rallied to Pence’s defense. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and several other likely candidates said Monday evening that they support religious freedom laws.
The debate touched a raw nerve in Indiana, which is just a year away from an emotional battle over a Republican-driven proposal to amend the state’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage.
Just months before the Supreme Court is set to rule on whether same-sex marriage is legal everywhere in the United States, the religious freedom debate has offered a look at the next front in America’s culture clashes — and the cross-currents facing the Republican Party, with social conservatives seeing religious freedom laws as sturdier ground and the typically pro-GOP business community and younger voters seeing those measures as veiled efforts at discrimination.
“Was I expecting this kind of backlash? Heavens no,” Pence admitted Tuesday.
He’d waffled in recent days over whether or not he would support a legislative fix to the law before finally announcing that he wanted one — but he didn’t say what that fix would be.
Potentially complicating his effort to quell the criticism, Pence said he opposes adding sexual orientation to the list of Indiana’s protected categories under state anti-discrimination law.
Democrats who’d seen their proposals to do just that rejected by the legislature in recent months said only a solution along those lines would suffice.
“You have to take affirmative action — you can’t just tinker with this language,” state Senate Democratic leader Tim Lanane said.
Pence’s statement came a day after Indiana’s top state legislators announced they were working on a legislative fix to clarify the intent of the law and following an intense backlash against the law, especially from the business community in Indiana and across the country.
Pence and other Indiana Republicans have repeatedly insisted that the law was never intended to allow discrimination against anyone and have charged that, even in its current form, the law could not be used as a legal defense to discriminate against someone on the basis of sexual orientation.
Instead, Pence and his GOP allies have accused the media and opponents of the law of mischaracterizing the law and spreading misinformation. But opposition to the law was swift and broad-sweeping, with large organizations and top companies ranging from the NCAA to Apple and Salesforce raising red flags over the law.
The state’s House speaker, Brian Bosma, said he “didn’t see that [reaction] coming” in the Monday press conference announcing work on a legislative fix.
Pence, the Indiana Republican who has been floated as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, again repeated that he is unflinchingly opposed to discrimination.
He also noted that he joined civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis in a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when hundreds of activists fighting for civil rights for African-Americans were brutally assaulted by police officers.
Pence did get some beefy backup from the field of potential 2016 presidential contenders as former Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Bobby Jindal and others, including the only declared 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, rushing to defend the Indiana law.
Here is a roundup of elected officials, business executives and companies — from Indianapolis to Silicon Valley — that have spoken out against such laws:
Starbucks: The coffee chain was the latest big name brand to publicly condemn the law on Monday.
“We join with others opposing any state or federal legislation that permits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and encourage policymakers everywhere to embrace equality,” Starbucks said in a statement.
Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy: Malloy took the unusual step Monday of signing an executive order forbidding state-funded travel to Indiana, saying his administration is “sending a message that discrimination won’t be tolerated.”
Apple CEO Tim Cook: In an op-ed published Sunday, Cook said such laws are “very dangerous” and contrary to America’s founding principles.
“On behalf of Apple, I’m standing up to oppose this new wave of legislation,” wrote Cook, who came out as gay last year.
Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle: The proposed campus expansion project in Indianapolis is “on hold” following the bill’s passage.
PayPal co-founder Max Levchin: Opposing the law is “a basic human decency issue,” Levchin told CNN.
“I’m asking my fellow CEOs to look at how they’re thinking about their relationship with the state and evaluate it in terms of the legislation that’s getting signed into law,” he said.
Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman: Yelp will “make every effort” to expand its corporate operations in states that do not have such laws on the books. “These laws set a terrible precedent that will likely harm the broader economic health of the states where they have been adopted.”
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff: The law is an “outrage,” he said, and that his company will “dramatically reduce” its investments in Indiana.
Eli Lilly: “We certainly understand the implications this legislation has on our ability to attract and retain employees. Simply put, we believe discriminatory legislation is bad for Indiana and for business.”
Eli Lilly employs more than 11,700 workers in Indiana, mostly in Indianapolis.
NBA, WNBA, Indiana Pacers and Indiana Fever: “The game of basketball is grounded in long established principles of inclusion and mutual respect. We will continue to ensure that all fans, players and employees feel welcome at all NBA and WNBA events in Indiana and elsewhere.”
NCAA: “We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees.”
Gen Con: The people that run the video game convention said the law would “factor into our decision making on hosting the convention in the state of Indiana in future years.”
Gen Con brought 56,000 people to the state last year, according to CEO Adrian Swartout.