Pence OKs fix for legislation after backlash

The Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Mike Pence approved changes to a new law that sparked boycotts of the state amid fears that it would allow discrimination against lesbians and gays.

Pence had asked lawmakers to clarify language in the religious objections law earlier this week as businesses canceled conventions and governments banned travel to the state. The House and Senate approved the changes Thursday after intense negotiations with business and community leaders, and Pence signed it late in the day.

The revised legislation prohibits providers from using the law as a legal defense for refusing to provide services, goods, facilities or accommodations. It also bars discrimination based on factors that include race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or United States military service.

It is the first time sexual orientation and gender identity are mentioned in state law.

As originally passed, the Indiana law did not specifically mention gays and lesbians. But opponents have voiced concern that the language contained in them could offer a legal defense to businesses and other institutions that refuse to serve gays, such as caterers, florists or photographers with religious objections to same-sex marriage.

The law will take effect July 1.

The Indiana amendment prohibits service providers from using the law as a legal defense for refusing to provide goods, services, facilities or accommodations. It also bars discrimination based on race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or U.S. military service.

The measure exempts churches and affiliated schools, along with nonprofit religious organizations.

In a written statement, Pence, a Republican, said, “There will be some who think this legislation goes too far and some who think it does not go far enough, but as governor I must always put the interest of our state first and ask myself every day, ‘What is best for Indiana?’ I believe resolving this controversy and making clear that every person feels welcome and respected in our state is best for Indiana.”

“Our state is rightly celebrated for our pro-business environment, and we enjoy an international reputation for the hospitality, generosity, tolerance and kindness of our people. Hoosier hospitality is not a slogan; it is our way of life. Now that this is behind us, let’s move forward together with a renewed commitment to the civility and respect that make this state great.”

Pence also said: “Hoosiers deserve to know, that even with this legislation, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act enhances protections for every church, nonprofit religious organization or society, religious school, rabbi, priest, preacher, minister or pastor in the review of government action where their religious liberty is infringed. The law also enhances protection in religious liberty cases for groups of individuals and businesses in conscience decisions that do not involve provision of goods and services, employment and housing.”

House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican, said the agreement sends a “very strong statement” that the state will not tolerate discrimination.

The law “cannot be used to discriminate against anyone,” he said.

Business leaders, many of whom had opposed the law or canceled travel to the state because of it, called the amendment a good first step but said more work needs to be done. Gay-rights groups noted that Indiana still does not include LGBT people as a protected class in its civil-rights law, but Bosma said lawmakers met with representatives of the gay community and said they believed the new language addressed many of their concerns.

Former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, now a senior vice president at drugmaker Eli Lilly, praised the agreement but noted that work needs to be done to repair the damage done to the state’s image.

“The healing needs to begin right now,” he said.

Democratic leaders said the proposed amendment didn’t go far enough and repeated their calls to repeal the law.

“I want to hear somebody say we made a grave mistake, and we caused the state tremendous embarrassment that will take months, if not years, to repair,” House Minority Leader Scott Pelath said. “I want to hear one of the proponents ‘fess up, because the healing cannot begin until that happens. The solution is simple. Repeal this law.”

Also on Thursday, the House voted 76-17 to pass a revised bill after Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson asked for changes in the wake of mounting criticism. Hutchinson signed it only moments after the vote, saying the new version recognizes that “we have a diverse workforce and a diverse culture.”

Mark Ambrogi is a sports correspondent for the Daily Journal.