When Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed his state’s “religious freedom” bill into law last week, he unwittingly touched off a national firestorm. And the Republican Party — from largely unknown governors to 2016 presidential contenders — has been deeply divided on the issue.
The protests and condemnations from gay rights advocates were probably expected. What was stunning, however, was the outrage within the GOP ranks and traditionally conservative groups.
The Republican mayor of Indianapolis bashed the bill, for example, and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) went as far as to call his neighbouring state’s law “un-American.”
“I strongly oppose what Governor Pence did. We should not enshrine bigotry under the cover of religion. It’s not just bad practice — it’s un-American,” Kirk said Wednesday.
The ongoing debate is fierce. Supporters of Indiana’s law, the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, say it simply provides a “balancing test” to determine when religious practice can be subject to government interference. Critics say it opens the door for businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians, such as a baker who refuses to cater a same-sex wedding.
And those critics were loud. Celebrities like Miley Cyrus called Pence an “arsehole” and other performers canceled their upcoming events in the state. Normally apolitical sports groups such as NASCAR and the Indiana-based NCAA also indicated their disappointment. The governors in other municipalities including New York and Connecticut issued state-funded travel bans.
The most influential reaction, however, came from business leaders, many of whom threatened to withdraw future investments in the state, including Salesforce.com and Yelp. Business titans like Apple CEO Tim Cook and Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon joined in. And, according to Politico, even some of Pence’s closest supporters in the business community suddenly turned their backs on him.
“Pence ally and donor Bill Oesterle, the Republican CEO of Angie’s List and former [Indiana] Gov. Mitch Daniels’ one-time campaign manager, canceled plans to add up to 1,000 jobs and expand its headquarters in Indianapolis, on account of the religious freedom bill,” the outlet reported.
“It passed and [was] signed so quickly by the governor, we suspect the motives behind it,” Oesterle said. “We believe that the impact of that bill on our ability to hire — continue to build a high-growth technology company — that they are material, and that they are inconsistent with the state’s activity to encourage growth.”
Pence ultimately backed down. In a somber but defiant press conference on Tuesday, the visibly pained governor said he was “proud” to sign the bill but would nevertheless look for a legislative fix for what he described as its “perception problem.”
“It’s been a tough week in the Hoosier state,” he admitted. “This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial. But these are not ordinary times.”
A reporter asked Pence if he had anticipated the blowback when he signed the law last week.
“Was I expecting this kind of backlash? Heavens no,” Pence replied.
The following day, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) also backed off his state’s “religious freedom” bill after previously indicating he would support it. He asked the state’s legislative leaders to recall the law and send him a less controversial measure.
The GOP field of likely 2016 presidential candidates has also been at least partially divided by the issue. Although only former New York Gov. George Pataki (R), a long shot in the 2016 race, has directly shunned the Indiana law, the various other contenders have had mixed reactions.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), a top-tier presidential contender, attempted to strike a moderate tone on the matter. Bush initially praised Indiana’s law but offered more cautious commentary Wednesday night. Speaking at a fundraiser in the LGBT-friendly San Francisco, Bush suggested Indiana’s leaders should have included the gay community when crafting their bill as the state of Utah had done.
“Utah went about this, but what they did is they brought all the constituencies together and this included the leadership of the LDS Church and [LGBT] community and said, ‘How can we forge a consensus where we can protect religious freedom and also create an environment where we’re not discriminating against people?’ And they figured it out and they passed a law,” Bush said. “There wasn’t a bunch of yelling and screaming. That to me seems like a better approach to dealing with this.”
Other likely 2016 candidates offered something less than a full endorsement of the Indiana and Arkansas “religious freedom” bills. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) broadly supported the idea of “religious freedom” legislation but did not offer specific praise for the controversial state laws at hand. And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) backed Pence’s effort’s to change his state’s bill and said he opposed allowing businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians.
On the opposite side of the issue, most of the other expected Republican candidates have used the Indiana controversy to back the Hoosier state’s original law, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania), and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, among others. And it may be to their political benefit: Evangelical voters wary of gay rights make up an outsize portion of the GOP primary electorate, especially in early states like Iowa.
“I certainly congratulate Gov. Mike Pence for having the courage to stand up for his convictions. And you know, it really is a sad commentary on where we are today that this is viewed as controversial,” Cruz said.
And former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina issued a lengthy statement criticising other business leaders who blasted the law, which she said is part of a discussion “of critical importance for our country.”
“It is frankly sad to me that politics has become a fact-free zone,” Fiorina said. “It is sad that so many people on the left were quick to turn this into a divisive and destructive debate so they could further their own brand of identity politics. It is sad that CEOs took to Twitter before checking their facts, adding to the division instead of helping build tolerance.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Rand Paul (R) has conspicuously remained silent on the “religious freedom” controversy.
A Paul spokesman told The New Republic on Wednesday, “The Senator is out of pocket with family this week and has not weighed in at this time.”
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