By Tom Davies
INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Mike Pence called off public appearances Monday and sports officials planned an “Indy Welcomes All” campaign ahead of this weekend’s NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis as lawmakers scrambled to quiet the firestorm over a new law that has much of the country portraying Indiana as a state of intolerance.
Republican legislative leaders said they are working on adding language to the religious-objections law to make it clear that the measure does not allow discrimination against gays and lesbians. As signed by Pence last week, the measure 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.
“What we had hoped for with the bill was a message of inclusion, inclusion of all religious beliefs,” Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said. “What instead has come out is a message of exclusion, and that was not the intent.”
The efforts fell flat with Democrats, who called for a repeal, and even some Republicans.
“They’re scrambling to put a good face on a bad issue. What puzzles me is how this effort came to the top of the legislative agenda when clearly the business community doesn’t support it,” said Bill Oesterle, an aide to Republican former Gov. Mitch Daniels and CEO of consumer reporting agency Angie’s List, which canceled expansion plans in Indianapolis because of the law.
Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican, said the law threatens to undermine the city’s economic growth and reputation as a convention and tourism destination and called for lawmakers to add protections for sexual orientation and gender identity to Indiana civil-rights laws.
“I call upon Governor Pence and the Indiana Legislature to fix this law. Either repeal it or pass a law that protects all who live, work and visit Indiana. And do so immediately. Indianapolis will not be defined by this,” Ballard said.
After a two-hour private meeting of House Republicans, Bosma said Monday that repealing the law isn’t “a realistic goal at this point.”
“I’m looking for a surgical solution, and I think the least intrusive surgery is to clarify that (the law) cannot be used to support the denial of goods, facilities or services to any member of the public,” he said.
Pence, who defended the law during a television appearance Sunday, canceled scheduled appearances Monday night and Tuesday, in part because of planned protests.
Republican Senate President Pro Tem David Long stressed that the new law is based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which has been upheld by courts.
“This law does not and will not be allowed to discriminate against anyone,” Long said.
But the Human Rights Campaign said it’s disingenuous to compare the two laws.
The campaign’s legal director, Sarah Warbelow, said the federal law was designed to ensure religious minorities were protected from laws passed by the federal government that might not have been intended to discriminate but had that effect.
The Indiana law, she said, allows individuals to invoke government action even when the government is not a party to a lawsuit. It also allows all businesses to assert religious beliefs regardless of whether they are actually religious organizations.
She said one of the best ways to fix the law would be to add language that explicitly says it cannot be used to undermine civil-rights laws.
Democratic House Minority Leader Scott Pelath said Republican legislators fail to admit the law is a mistake.
“They’re not facing up to reality — this is a national embarrassment,” Pelath said. “The bush needs to be pulled up by its roots and thrown into the fire.”
Indiana University law professor Deborah Widiss said the Indiana backlash is being fueled by the legalization of gay marriage and last year’s Supreme Court ruling in a case that found Hobby Lobby and other closely held private businesses with religious objections could opt out of providing the free contraceptive coverage required by the Affordable Care Act.
Indiana’s lack of a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is also a contributor, she said.
Long and Bosma did not appear eager to add such protection into the measure, noting that it is a big policy decision and that only four weeks remain in this year’s legislative session.
Meanwhile, the fallout continued. The public-employee union known as AFSCME announced Monday it was canceling a planned women’s conference in Indianapolis this year because of the law. The band Wilco said 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,” while 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.”
As a similar bill advances in Arkansas, Warbelow said lawmakers need to take notice.
“We hope that the state legislature is paying attention … and taking seriously that the whole world is looking at them,” Warbelow said.