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 said he does not believe “for a minute” that lawmakers intended “to create a license to discriminate.”
“It certainly wasn’t my intent,” said Pence, who signed the law last week.
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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.
Businesses and organizations including Apple and the NCAA have voiced concern over the effect of the law, and some states have barred government-funded travel to Indiana.
Also Tuesday, the Indianapolis Star urged Indiana lawmakers in a front-page editorial to respond to widespread criticism of the 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.
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, Arkansas lawmakers said they won’t modify their measure.
“There’s not really any place to make any changes now,” Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger of Hindsville said about his proposal. “If there are questions in two years, we can fix it.”
Hundreds of protesters filled Arkansas’ Capitol to oppose the measure, holding signs that read “Discrimination is not a Christian Value” and “Discrimination is a Disease,” and chanting “Shame on You” at Ballinger after the measure was endorsed by a House committee.
“I believe that many people will want to flee the state, and many people will want to avoid our state,” said Rita Jernigan, a protester and one of the lead plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging Arkansas’ gay marriage ban.
Similar proposals have been introduced in more than a dozen states, patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Nineteen other states have similar laws on the books.
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who had expressed reservations about unintended consequences of an earlier version of the bill, has said he will sign the current measure into law.
“If this bill reaches my desk in similar form as to what has been passed in 20 other states, then I will sign it, but I am pleased that the Legislature is continuing to look at ways to assure balance and fairness in the legislation,” Hutchinson said Monday in a statement.
In a letter released Tuesday, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola urged Hutchinson to veto the proposal, which he said would hurt the state’s economic-development efforts because it “sends the message that some members of our community will have fewer protections than others. Our city and our state cannot be limited to only certain segments of society.”
Sexual orientation and gender identity are not included in Arkansas’ anti-discrimination protections. Last month, Hutchinson allowed a measure to go into law that prevented local governments from including such protections in their anti-discrimination ordinances.
Opponents of the bill hoped to target Hutchinson’s promise to be a “jobs governor” made during his successful bid last year for the state’s top office. The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group, has run ads in Silicon Valley aimed at the same technology firms Hutchinson has said he wants to lure to Arkansas.
Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post over the weekend opposing the Arkansas and Indiana measures, while retail giant Wal-Mart has said the proposal sends the wrong message about its home state. Little Rock-based data services company Acxiom also urged Hutchinson to veto the bill, saying the measure would enable discrimination and open the state up to ridicule.
“This bill is at direct odds with your position that ‘Arkansas is open for business,’ ” CEO Scott Howe and Executive Vice President Jerry C. Jones wrote Monday in a letter to the governor.
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 canceling a May performance.