After a week of tumult in Indiana, Gov. Mike Pence signed a legislative fix for Indiana’s “religious freedom” law late Thursday that eliminates the potential erosion of LGBT protections in communities, including Indianapolis, that have local anti-discrimination ordinances protecting sexual orientation and gender identity.
But the change was not universally hailed because it does nothing to provide those protections in much of Indiana where those local ordinances do not exist.
Still, the revision is potentially a first step in the political fight to add sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class in the state’s civil rights law. It also provides greater protection to religious minorities throughout Indiana.
“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?'” Pence said in a statement Thursday evening. “I believe resolving this controversy and making clear that every person feels welcome and respected in our state is best for Indiana.”
Pence declined requests for interviews Thursday night and slipped out of the Statehouse before heading on a family vacation to Europe.
Pence’s decision capped one week of national derision for him, Indiana Republicans and much of the state at large. It also came a week after he signed the first version of the “religious freedom” law, which set off a stunning national outburst over fears that it would allow Indiana businesses to deny services to gays and lesbians.
Alterations to the law were hammered out in private over the past week between Republican legislative leaders and some of Indiana’s biggest corporate powerbrokers, including Salesforce Marketing Cloud CEO Scott McCorkle and Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Mark Miles. The proposal was then signed off on, in private, by House and Senate Republicans Wednesday before being unveiled publicly Thursday morning.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, presented the measure Thursday, flanked by more than a dozen top business executives and influential Republican party members.
The message, they said, was to be clear that Indiana is open for business for all.
“I think the national concerns that have been raised that we’re all hearing about are put to bed,” Bosma said. “We can unequivocally say that RFRA cannot be used to discriminate against anyone.”
But he acknowledged the state’s reputation might not be fixed. “Is the damage able to be turned back?” he asked. “That remains to be seen.”
Several legal experts say the clarification approved Thursday simply eliminated a provision in the original law that could have overridden local anti-discrimination ordinances that included protections based on sexual orientation. Only Indianapolis and 10 other communities across the state have such ordinances.
The status quo remains in the rest of the state, where discrimination against gays and lesbians is not expressly prohibited because they are not covered by statewide civil rights protections, the experts said.
The actual effects of the first RFRA bill and the “fix” may be minimal, but the damage to Indiana’s image was incalculable.
Throughout the week, national celebrities and politicians (mostly Democrats) piled on. Pence was lampooned extensively by late-night hosts following a disastrous appearance on ABC’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos.
But it was the threats from major businesses and conventions which spurred Republicans to reconsider a law that they continue to believe does not allow for discrimination against LGBT individuals. By the middle of the week, AFSCME canceled an Indianapolis convention scheduled for October and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) had tentatively canceled their plans. And Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle blamed the “religious freedom” law for his decision to put his company’s $40-million Indianapolis expansion on hold.
“It’s on our shoulders as to whether we end this controversy or go on,” said Sen. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis, who chaired the conference committee which ultimately approved the “fix”.
The political fallout was equally damning.
At the start of the week, presumed Republican presidential front-runner Jeb Bush stood firm behind Pence with other top 2016 contenders. But by the middle of the week he had backpedaled.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, was presented a “religious freedom” measure similar to Indiana’s at the start of the week, but opted not to sign it amid the national firestorm Indiana was enduring. Hutchinson later signed a modified version of RFRA Thursday.
The immediate effect for Pence was that it dashed hopes for national office in 2016, and the longterm fallout raised concerns among some about his ability to hold the governor’s office for Republicans in 2016.
A badly damaged Pence largely hid from public following a Tuesday press conference carried live across the nation. However he emerged briefly Wednesday to lobby members of Indiana’s Republican Central Committee to support his pick for party chair, former Faith-based Initiatives Director Jeff Cardwell.
Roughly two hours before signing SB 50 into law, security and staffers hurriedly ushered the governor into his office, avoiding members of the media.
With a bevy of press personnel planted firmly outside his door, Pence hunkered down while his staff refused to comment on his intentions –— saying only that a written statement would be issued.
Just before he signed the bill, Pence’s brother Greg, visited him for nearly half an hour. Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann was the only other guest in Pence’s office before the governor slipped past more than a dozen state and national press.
Indiana’s top three conservative religious lobbyists — Micah Clark, Eric Miller and Curt Smith — stood behind Pence at his private signing of the “religious freedom” measure last week. But Thursday found the trio desperately urging Pence to veto the compromise worked out with Indiana businesses.
State lawmakers repeated Thurday the religious freedom debate they held just weeks earlier, this time approving the compromise language.
Democrats, who were kept out of the negotiations, argued that the law should be repealed entirely and said that “half-steps” were not what Indiana residents were looking for.
In the House, Democrats chastised the GOP for denouncing discrimination on the one hand, but not committing to take up LGBT protections in the state civil rights statute.
“Time and time again we’ve seen our leaders agree that discrimination is wrong, and then agree we’re not going to do anything about it right now,” said Rep. Dan Forestal, D-Indianapolis.
Others invoked Pence’s Republican predecessor in denouncing the way Republicans brought a national firestorm to the state.
“When Gov. (Mitch) Daniels said let’s take a break from the culture wars and the divisive issues, he knew what he was talking about,” Minority Leader Scott Pelath said.