Indiana: Law OK, will add clarity

Indiana Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, left, D-Anderson, and Indiana House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, call for the repeal of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act during a news conference at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Monday, March 30, 2015. Republican legislative leaders say they are working on adding language to a new state law to make it clear that it doesn't allow discrimination against gays and lesbians. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Indiana's legislative leaders on Monday joined Gov. Mike Pence in saying that they planned to amend a new religious freedom law to make clear that it did not allow discrimination against homosexuals, while still insisting that the law did not do so in its current form.

The law, approved by the Republican-dominated General Assembly and signed Thursday by Pence, also a Republican, set off a firestorm, with both critics and some supporters saying it would allow businesses to deny service to gay consumers on the basis of their religious beliefs. The consequences for Indiana promised to be economic as well as political, with businesses vowing to shun the state.

"It is not the intent of the law to discriminate against anyone, and it will not be allowed to discriminate against anyone," David Long, president pro tempore of the state Senate, said Monday at a news conference with Brian Bosma, speaker of the state House of Representatives.

"We hope to have a fix very soon," Long said, adding that lawmakers hoped to "calm the seas here."

But both men said they did not know what form that fix would take, adding that it needed to be discussed among their colleagues.

The law aims to protect individuals or companies from being forced to take actions that impose a substantial burden on their religious beliefs. Some people on both sides of the debate say that means businesses can discriminate.

"We don't believe that is the effect," Bosma said.

Democratic lawmakers said the law should be repealed entirely. Scott Pelath, the House minority leader, said only a repeal would clearly avoid discrimination and begin to reverse the damage done to the state's reputation by the uproar.

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.

The future of the law lies in the hands of Republicans, who hold 40 of the 50 Senate seats and 71 of 100 in the House.

Pence told The Indianapolis Star on Saturday that he was taken aback by negative reactions to the law, called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Similar laws in other states have drawn relatively little attention.

"I support religious liberty, and I support this law," the governor said. "But we are in discussions with legislative leaders this weekend to see if there's a way to clarify the intent of the law."

But a day later, appearing on ABC's This Week, Pence did not give clear answers to some questions from the host, George Stephanopoulos, about how the law would work, such as whether it would allow a Christian florist to deny service to a same-sex couple. Asserting that the legislation was not about discrimination, he said, "The issue here is, you know, is tolerance a two-way street or not?"

The legislative leaders expressed frustration Monday that Pence had not stated more explicitly and forcefully that the law did not permit discrimination. Asked if they were holding their news conference because of the governor's performance, Bosma said, "I think the fact that he did not answer some questions clearly, yes."

Critics have noted that some states with similar statutes also have civil-rights laws that explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. But homosexuals are not a protected class under Indiana's civil-rights laws, and Indiana lawmakers cast doubt on the prospects of giving them such protection.

"Big policy discussion to toss in here, four weeks before the end of the session," Bosma said Monday. "I think that's an uphill battle."

Asked about the idea Sunday, the governor said he would not seek such a change.

"That's not on my agenda," he said on This Week.

On Saturday, thousands of protesters gathered at the Statehouse as companies and other governments announced a halt to business with the state and the capital, Indianapolis, over the law.

The debate has cast a shadow over preparations in Indianapolis for the Final Four of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, which will take place Saturday and Monday. In a statement Thursday, NCAA President Mark Emmert said the organization was "deeply concerned" about the legislation.

Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, wrote an opinion article for The Washington Post calling the law discriminatory, and noting that similar bills had been introduced in other states. "On behalf of Apple, I'm standing up to oppose this new wave of legislation -- wherever it emerges," he wrote, but he did not elaborate on what form that opposition might take.

Marc Benioff, the chief executive of, said last week that his company would halt all corporate travel to Indiana. On Saturday, Mayor Ed Murray of Seattle announced a ban on city employees traveling to Indiana for work using city funds.

The same day, Bill Oesterle, the chief executive of Angie's List, said his company would abandon a deal with Indiana and Indianapolis to expand its headquarters. His opposition was seen as an indication of dissatisfaction with the law beyond the liberal political left. Oesterle was the campaign director for Mitch Daniels' successful Republican bid for Indiana governor in 2004.

The public-employee union known as AFSCME announced Monday that 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."

The backlash has been an unexpected political headache for Pence, who is juggling whether to run for re-election or for president in 2016.

Defending the law in the interviews with The Star and Stephanopoulos, the governor pointed to its origins in federal legislation signed by President Bill Clinton and adopted by about 19 other states. Stephanopoulos asked him whether signing the law was a mistake.

"Absolutely not," Pence said, adding later: "I signed the bill. We're going to continue to explain it to people who don't understand it, and if possible, we will find a way to amplify what this bill really is in the legislative process."

Indiana's bill was drafted from a version that President Barack Obama voted for when he was a state senator in Illinois, Pence said. Critics, however, say the Indiana law includes different wording that could open the door to wider discrimination.

The 1993 federal law says that government can impinge on religious practice only if it has a compelling interest in doing so, and no other practical way of pursuing that interest. It was intended to reverse the effects of two Supreme Court rulings rejecting indigenous American claims that government action violated their religious freedom.

Information for this article was contributed by Tom Davies, Lauryn Schroeder and Jeni O'Malley of The Associated Press.

A Section on 03/31/2015