Indiana religious freedom debate exposes Republican divisions

“I think Gov. Pence has done the right thing,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in a March 30, radio interview. He said the law was "simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs.”

“I think Gov. Pence has done the right thing,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in a March 30, radio interview. He said the law was "simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs.” David Goldman, AP

“I think Gov. Pence has done the right thing,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in a March 30, radio interview. He said the law was "simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs.” David Goldman, AP

“I think Gov. Pence has done the right thing,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in a March 30, radio interview. He said the law was “simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs.”

WASHINGTON — It is a debate many Republicans hoped to avoid.

But as the backlash intensifies over a so-called religious freedom law in Indiana, the GOP‘s leading White House contenders have been drawn into a messy clash that highlights the party’s strong opposition to same-sex marriage and threatens to inject social issues into the early stages of the 2016 presidential primary season.

The debate has also energized Democrats nationwide while exposing sharp divisions between Republicans and local business leaders who oppose a law that critics say allows business owners to deny services to same-sex couples on religious grounds.

“It’s been a tough week,” Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said in a Tuesday press conference. He called for a legislative fix to address what he called a perception problem just five days after signing the bill into law.

It is a huge moment for Pence, a Republican presidential prospect himself, who has become the public face of the contentious law. It is also a critical time for the Republican Party, which has recently played down its opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage to help attract more women and younger voters before the next presidential election.

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Polling suggests a majority of the American electorate supports same-sex marriage, but the most conservative Republicans do not.

“It’s a total head-scratcher,” former Illinois Republican chairman Pat Brady said of the GOP presidential hopefuls who defended the law. “We’re trying to attract voters and win elections. We can’t scare people away.”

Yet the Republican 2016 presidential class overwhelmingly defended the new law, breaking with local business leaders in favor of conservatives across the country who cheered such laws as a necessary response to overreach by the Obama administration.

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