GOP Incumbent Says 'Religious Freedom' Takes Precedence Over Nondiscrimination
For a brief moment during Indiana Gov. Mike Pence's State of the State Address on Tuesday, it sounded as though he might have learned his lesson from the state and national outcry over his decision to sign an anti-LGBT "religious freedom" law last year.
It sounded as though, after 10 months of studying the issue, Pence would finally heed the calls of Democrats, some business-minded Republicans, LGBT advocates and hundreds of the state's employers, by endorsing a statewide law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
"Our state Constitution declares that all people are created equal, and I believe that no one should be harassed or mistreated because of who they are, who they love, or what they believe," Pence said near the end of his widely anticipated speech. "We cherish the dignity and worth of all our citizens. Here in Indiana, we are an open and welcoming state that welcomes anyone, and anyone that doesn't know that doesn't know Indiana."
Then, things took a dramatic turn for the worse.
"Hoosiers also cherish faith, and the freedom to live out their faith in their daily lives," Pence added. "Whether you work in a church or a synagogue or a temple or a mosque, religion brings meaning to the daily lives of millions of Hoosiers and no one should ever fear persecution because of their deeply held religious beliefs."
Pence told lawmakers the question they face is "whether it is necessary or even possible" to pass LGBT protections while also preserving religious freedom.
"Our Supreme Court has actually made it clear that our state Constitution protects both belief and practice," Pence told said. "So, as you go about your work on other issues, know that I will always give careful consideration to any bill that you send me, but legislation must be consistent with the Indiana Constitution. I will not support any bill that diminishes the religious freedom of Hoosiers or interferes with the Constitutional rights of our citizens to live out their beliefs in worship, service or work."
With that, Pence appeared to dash any hopes that the Legislature will pass a nondiscrimination law in 2016 that has the blessing of LGBT groups. According to professor Sheila Suess Kennedy, former director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, the governor also committed political suicide.
"He has chosen his side â€” the religious extremists, the people who really do not believe that gay and lesbian Hoosiers should be entitled to equal rights," Kennedy told The Indianapolis Star. "And he is certainly entitled to do that, but I think politically it was suicide."
In November, Pence will face Democrat John Gregg, who supports adding sexual orientation and gender identity to Indiana's existing civil rights law.
"Once again Mike Pence has proven he's just an officeholder, not a leader," Gregg said in a statement responding to Pence's speech. "On issue after issue critical to the state of Indiana, he passes the buck, rather than doing the job he was elected to do. His refusal to take a stand for equality is unconscionable given the fact that he created this mess, which continues to damage Indiana's economy and reputation."
Drew Anderson, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, called Pence "delusional," saying the governor's decision to sign the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 2015 "threw Indiana into a $250 million economic panic." In response to intense backlash over RFRA, lawmakers quickly passed an emergency "fix," but LGBT groups say it doesn't go far enough. Indiana remains one of about 30 states where anti-LGBT discrimination is legal, although cities like Indianapolis have passed local bans.
"Mike Pence doesn't 'abhor discrimination' â€” he actively promotes it, and that is why Indiana's 'Hoosier Hospitality' reputation is in jeopardy," Anderson said in response to Pence's speech.
This year, Indiana GOP lawmakers have introduced several bills purporting to ban anti-LGBT discrimination that contain broad religious exemptions. Lambda Legal, the LGBT civil rights group, said those bills "fail miserably to address the very real issues facing LGBT Hoosiers today."
"Let's remember the national fury unleashed on Indiana last spring, when the legislature passed, and Governor Pence signed, a religious refusal law that allowed businesses and service providers to discriminate against LGBT people," Lambda Legal's Christopher Clark said. "It is clear from tonight's address that Governor Pence forgot all about it and he has once again, started to back himself into that same corner."
Not surprisingly, though, socially conservative lawmakers and groups rallied to the governor's defense.
Ron Johnson Jr., executive director of the Indiana Pastors Alliance, told The Indy Star that Pence made a "pretty strong statement" and that LGBT protections would mean "people's religious beliefs, and in particular here Christianity and Christian beliefs, become criminalized, because if you believe what the Bible says about sexuality, you are now a bigot."
"That's what the law tells you â€” that it is a terrible thing for people of faith who simply respectfully disagree with the LGBT community," Johnson said.
Ironically, Pence concluded his speech by reciting lyrics from "Back Home Again in Indiana," a song made famous by openly gay musician Jim Naibors, who sang it before the Indianapolis 500 for 30 years.
"For the moonlight is still fair tonight along the Wabash, and from the fields still comes the breath of new mown hay," Pence said. "The candle lights are still gleaming, thro' the sycamores, on the banks of the Wabash, far away."
Below are a few more reactions to Pence's speech from Twitter:
As a young member of the LGBT community in Indiana, I can say @GovPenceIN's words have indeed made me terrified of the world I'm going into.
â€” pasta monsta (@binkybunboy) January 13, 2016
â€” Dambrauskwhat? (@Damascus_Steele) January 13, 2016
â€” Toney (@ToneyCreature) January 13, 2016
â€” Jennifer Wagner (@JenniferAWagner) January 13, 2016
â€” Veronikka (@Galaxie_Ranger) January 13, 2016
@GovPenceIN Hoosiers don't tolerate discrimination as long as you're white, heterosexual, and claim to be some kind of Christian.
â€” Ken Martinek (@KenMartinek1) January 13, 2016
â€” Brent Pierce (@indianabrent) January 13, 2016
â€” Evan Stoner (@evanstoner19) January 13, 2016
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