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

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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Also Tuesday, the Indianapolis Star urged Indiana lawmakers in a front-page editorial to respond to widespread criticism of a new law by protecting the rights of gays and lesbians.

The Star’s editorial, headlined “FIX THIS NOW,” covered the newspaper’s entire front page. It called for lawmakers to enact a law that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The newspaper says the uproar sparked by the law has “done enormous harm” to the state and potentially to its economic future.

Meanwhile, Arkansas was poised to follow Indiana in enacting a law despite increasing criticism from businesses and gay-rights advocates who call the laws a license to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

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The Arkansas House could vote as early as Tuesday on a proposal that would prohibit state and local governments from infringing on a person’s religious beliefs without a “compelling” reason. And unlike in Indiana – where Republicans were figuring out how to clarify that their law isn’t meant to discriminate – Arkansas lawmakers said they won’t modify their measure.

In Indiana, the fallout has ranged from the public-employee union known as AFSCME canceling a planned women’s conference in Indianapolis this year because of the law to the band Wilco saying 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.” 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.”

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