INDIANAPOLIS, IN, April 1, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) — Just days after making Indiana the 20th state to protect religious liberty, Gov. Mike Pence is acceding to tremendous backlash that has spread across the country.
Last week, Pence — a potential dark horse Republican presidential candidate — signed the Indiana version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The law, modeled after the federal law passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1993, as well as laws in 19 other states, protects religious liberty against government overreach.
However, critics pounced immediately, with attacks from celebrities, business leaders, politicians, and pundits dominating headlines. Many of these critics said that the Indiana RFRA was state-sponsored discrimination, though the law merely allows people with religious beliefs the chance to argue in court against government laws and regulations.
Yesterday, Pence backed down on his support for the law as written, saying that he wanted the Indiana legislature to back a bill that would limit the freedom of businesses when it came to serving homosexuals.
According to The Indianapolis Star, Pence explained in a press conference this morning that “we've got a perception problem” about the RFRA, and that he wanted to amend the existing law to clarify that businesses do not have the right to deny services. Pence said that he wants such legislation on his desk by the end of the week.
Princeton University Professor Robert George was sharply critical of Pence's handling of the controversy. He wrote on Facebook Tuesday that the governor's “pathetic performance over the past few days in defending a perfectly reasonable religious liberty law reveals that he lacks competence, courage, principle, or perhaps all three.”
“As for the hypocrisy, duplicity, and bad faith of the law's critics, well, it's par for the course for them, I suppose,” Prof. George added.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said that Pence's proposed change is unnecessary, though he said that without seeing the language he could not verify whether the change was good or bad. “RFRAs are not intended to nor have they ever been used to deny anyone non-religious goods or services,” said the conservative leader. “We support such a clarification making clear RFRA does not impact non-religious goods or services.”
The reaction to Indiana's RFRA could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity. By Monday, SalesForce.com has threatened to reduce its presence in the state, and the NCAA, a comic convention, and the religious group Disciples of Christ have all threatened to move their events to other states.
Perhaps most importantly, Angie's List stopped a $40 million expansion in Indiana that would have provided 1,000 jobs for the state's citizens.
Politicians have also criticized the law, with Washington state's governor declaring there would be no state-funded travel to Indiana. Pat McCrory, North Carolina's Republican governor, attacked the law, as did former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said that Indiana businesses who disagree with RFRA can relocate to Virginia.
One of Pence's fellow Hoosier Republican politicians, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, spoke against the RFRA on Monday. Ballard issued an executive order noting that anyone who receives money from the city must also follow its so-called “human rights ordinance,” and he said that the Indiana General Assembly should repeal RFRA or specifically add protections for “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” to the state's laws.
Pence has already said adding such protections is not something he is pursuing.
Hillary Clinton, the presumptive 2016 Democratic Party presidential nominee — whose husband signed the federal RFRA 22 years ago — also tweeted: “Sad this new Indiana law can happen in America today. We shouldn't discriminate against ppl bc of who they love.”
The backlash has had an effect on bills in other states — legislative bodies in Georgia and Montana stopped progress on their own RFRA bills.
According to The Federalist senior editor Mollie Hemingway, “The hysteria over this legislation is frightening and inaccurate.”
“The media and other activists are blatantly mischaracterizing how religious freedom bills actually work,” she told LifeSiteNews. “As we've seen in more than 20 years of their existence, they are only used as a defense against lawsuits or government action, not as an aggressive action against others.”
“Religious freedom bills are actually quite moderate, despite outlandish claims to the contrary,” she continued. “They require people who want to use religious freedom defenses to show that they have genuine religious beliefs that are seriously burdened by the government.”
“And even if they show that, the government can still argue that the burden is necessary for a variety of reasons.”
Michael Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association, likewise defended the Indiana RFRA as it stands. “The critics basically don't know what they're talking about,” he said in a phone conversation with LifeSiteNews.
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“The Indiana law is indistinguishable from all core principles of the federal law that has been in place for more than 20 years.”
“The claim that this is primarily aimed at homosexual conduct is also crazy,” continued Farris. “It's aimed at a wide swath of potential conflicts between religious people and governments,” and “it does not guarantee the outcome of any case. It puts the burden on the government to prove that there is no alternative to forcing you to do this.”
RFRA laws have allowed the Amish to resist building regulations, and Jehovah's Witnesses to get around certain medical regulations. The federal law was critical to the religious liberty victory last summer against the Obama administration's abortifacient and contraceptive mandate.
Dan Gainor, vice president of business and culture at the Media Research Center, blamed media misrepresentation for the backlash. “Journalists treat the Indiana fight as if Freedom of Religion simply didn’t exist. They call the RFRA law 'anti-gay' and downplay arguments that Christians are already having their freedom taken away across the nation. Conservatives are depicted as on the defensive, and facing 'an avalanche of criticism' over the new law,” he told LifeSiteNews.
Gainor said the real goal of the backlash against Pence and RFRA wasn't about the law, however — it's about the 2016 presidential elections. “The major media are trying to demonize Christianity going into the 2016 election, and are helping the left openly campaign against Christian faith as an election issue. The news strategy is to treat traditional people of faith as bigots.”
In a statement sent to the media, National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown said that “contrary to the claims of opponents of this legislation, it is people of faith who are being discriminated against by powerful groups intent on forcing them to support controversial issues such as same-sex ‘marriage,’ or risk losing their livelihood and personal assets.”