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Indiana governor says he wants changes to ‘grossly mischaracterized’ religious freedom law

Gov. Mike Pence (r-Ind.) speaking at a news conference on Tuesday morning, March 31, 2015.
Gov. Mike Pence (r-Ind.) speaking at a news conference on Tuesday morning, March 31, 2015.

Updated: 2:00 p.m. EDT

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said Tuesday that he wants legislation on his desk by the end of the week to clarify that the state’s new religious-freedom law does not allow discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Pence defended the measure as a vehicle to protect religious liberty but said he has been meeting with lawmakers “around the clock” to address concerns that it would allow businesses to deny services to gay customers.

The governor acknowledged that Indiana has a “perception problem” over the law but defended it as a vehicle to protect religious liberty. He said the law has been “grossly mischaracterized” and has put Indiana under a harsh glare.

“I don’t believe for a minute that it was the intent of the General Assembly to create a license to discriminate,” he said. “It certainly wasn’t my intent.”

But, he said, he “can appreciate that that’s become the perception, not just here in Indiana but all across the country. We need to confront that.”

The law 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.

Although the legal language does not specifically mention gays and lesbians, critics say the law is designed to protect businesses and individuals who do not want to serve gays and lesbians, such as florists or caterers who might be hired for a same-sex wedding.

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In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Indiana officials appeared to be in “damage-control mode” following an uproar over the law.

Earnest also took issue with Pence’s claim that Indiana’s law was rooted in a 1993 federal law. He said the Indiana measure marked a “significant expansion” over the 1993 law because it applies to private transactions beyond those involving the federal government.

Businesses and organizations including Apple and the NCAA have voiced concern over the law, and at least two states – Connecticut and Washington — have barred government-funded travel to Indiana.

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