Indiana governor’s first term is likely his last if he doesn’t calm the uproar of the RFRA with protections for LGBTs

IndianaThere’s nothing funnier than watching a boat-load of politicians headed over a waterfall trying to back paddle their way to safety. And that’s what we witnessed this week in Indiana over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed the week before by the state’s lawmakers.

After failing to convince anyone that the law really didn’t discriminate against LGBT people, Republican Gov. Mike Pence promised Tuesday, March 31, in an Indianapolis press conference to “fix” the controversial bill by week’s end, to clarify that it would not discriminate against LGBT people.

The governor claimed he interpreted the bill as nothing more than a measure to protect individual business owners’ rights to exercise their religious freedom. Had he viewed the legislation as discriminatory, Pence said the RFRA would now bear a ‘veto’ rather than his signature.

The bill would, for example, allow bakery owners, florists and others the right to refuse to provide services for same-sex marriages if they feel it is a violation of their religious beliefs, according to legal observers. Critics of the bill said widespread discrimination could ensue based on it, and the media televised an image of a sign in a restaurant door over the weekend banning LGBT customers.

Pence’s press conference announcing the “fix” followed a backlash the Hoosier politician admitted he never imagined erupting: “Was I expecting this kind of backlash? Heavens no,” the governor said.

Twenty states now have RFRA laws on their books. Supporters of the laws refer to them as “shields” rather than “swords,” and they claim the laws, dating back 19 years, have never been successfully used to defend anti-LGBT discrimination.

Pence blamed the media of presenting a false impression of the law and creating a “perception problem.” Still, even the supporters of the bill in Indiana hailed it as a legal method for businesses           to turn away LGBT customers. What else could be its purpose?

Some news commentators lashed back at Pence, who initially vowed not to ask for any changes to the bill’s language when the uproar began. The commentators accused the governor of attempting to shift the blame to the media instead of shouldering it himself.

Top Republican contenders for the 2016 presidential nomination — Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and several other likely candidates — rushed to Pence’s defense Monday evening, March 30, saying they too favored religious freedom laws. But they failed to offset the criticism of the White House, Democrats and — more importantly — the national business community.

David WebbEli Lilly, Subaru, Dow AgroSciences, NASCAR, Apple, Walmart and Salesforce officials spoke out against the new bill. Angie’s List announced it would postpone plans for a $40 million expansion creating 1,000 new jobs, and National College Athletics Association officials announced they would move events such as the upcoming men’s basketball Final Four in Indianapolis to another location in the future.

In response to the RFRA, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican, announced in a press conference Monday that he signed an executive order reaffirming that businesses receiving city funds could not refuse LGBT customers. “Discrimination is wrong,” Ballard said. “And I hope that message is being heard loud and clear at our Statehouse.” The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and the Indianapolis Colts also joined in the outcry.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Pence tried to “falsely suggest” that Indiana’s law resembles a federal religious freedom law signed by President Bill Clinton. He called the state law “a much more open-ended piece of legislation that could reasonably be used to try to justify discriminating against somebody because of who they love.”

“We see business leaders saying that they are reluctant to do business in a state where their customers or even their employees could be subjected to greater discrimination just because of who they love,” Earnest said.

Presumed Democratic Party presidential contender Hillary Clinton tweeted, it is “sad this new Indiana law can happen in America today.” Other Democrats called the bill “shameful,” and mayors and at least two governors across the nation banned official travel to Indiana.

Despite the drama in Indiana, Arkansas legislators approved an almost identical RFRA bill for that state on Tuesday. But Gov. Asa Hutcheson, who obviously learned a lesson from his Indiana colleague’s dilemma, announced Wednesday, April 1, he would not sign the bill until changes are made to ensure it is not a discriminatory piece of legislation. In Oklahoma, a RFRA bill was scuttled after a legislator added an amendment that would force businesses to advertise their unwillingness to do business with the LGBT community.

All of this is set against the backdrop of the Supreme Court preparing to rule later in the year on the legality of same-sex marriage everywhere in the United States. Indiana Republicans plan to wage battle next year to amend the state’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Indiana recognized same-sex marriage in October of 2014.

It’s unclear how lawmakers and Pence will “fix” the new RFRA because legal analysts claim adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of Indiana’s protected categories is the only method available to offset the bill. Pence said he opposes that move.

The governor noted he joined the recent civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala., but he failed to provide any examples of supporting LGBT rights. If he truly opposes discrimination against LGBT people, the “fix” to the RFRA is support the necessary changes to the state’s nondiscrimination law.

If he won’t support that measure, then we probably won’t be able to understand over the roar of the rapids what he and his colleagues are trying to say next. Pence’s first term as governor will probably be his last. Nothing makes a bigger impression on a community of business people than financial loss.

Most business people I’ve ever known consider one person’s money as good as another’s when they are trying to make a profit.•

David Webb is a veteran journalist with more than three decades of experience, including a stint as a staff reporter for Dallas Voice. He also previously worked as a researcher and writer for SPLC. He freelances for publications nationwide.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 3, 2015.