The nation’s latest legislative battle over religious freedom and gay rights came to a close Thursday when Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a controversial “religious freedom” bill into law.
His action followed two days of intense pressure from opponents — including technology company executives and convention organizers — who fear the measure could allow discrimination, particularly against gays and lesbians.
Pence and leaders of the Republican-controlled General Assembly called those concerns a “misunderstanding.”
“This bill is not about discrimination,” Pence said, “and if I thought it legalized discrimination I would have vetoed it.”
Senate Bill 101 prohibits state or local governments from substantially burdening a person’s ability to exercise their religion — unless the government can show that it has a compelling interest and that the action is the least-restrictive means of achieving it. It takes effect July 1.
Although the bill does not mention sexual orientation, opponents fear it could allow business owners to deny services to gays and lesbians for religious reasons.
Pence signed the bill during a private ceremony in his Statehouse office just before 10 a.m. Thursday. He was joined by supportive lawmakers, Franciscan monks and nuns, orthodox Jews, and some of the state’s most powerful lobbyists on conservative social issues.
The event was closed to the public and the press.
The bill signing makes Indiana the 20th state in the nation to adopt such legislation. It is modeled on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which President Bill Clinton signed in 1993.
But the timing of the measure has colored the debate in Indiana.
Social conservatives have pushed hard for such measures across the country following recent federal court rulings that legalized same-sex marriage in Indiana and other states.
Many in Indiana also see the legislation as a reaction to last year’s unsuccessful push to enshrine a same-sex marriage ban in the state’s constitution.
Three of the lobbyists who pushed hardest for last year’s gay marriage ban — Micah Clark of the American Family Association of Indiana, Curt Smith of the Indiana Family Institute and Eric Miller of Advance America — were among the 70 to 80 guests invited to the private bill signing.
“It is vitally important to protect religious freedom in Indiana,” Miller said in a statement after the bill signing. “It was therefore important to pass Senate Bill 101 in 2015 in order to help protect churches, Christian businesses and individuals from those who want to punish them because of their Biblical beliefs!”
Socially conservative advocacy groups were joined by the Catholic Church, Indiana Right to Life, and many evangelical Christians in supporting the measure.
But Pence rejected suggestions that SB 101 was a consolation prize for conservative advocacy groups who failed to pass the gay marriage ban last year.
“I think that is inaccurate,” he said. “This was overdue.”
— Governor Mike Pence (@GovPenceIN) March 26, 2015
— AFA-IN (@AFAofIndiana) March 26, 2015
The issue has struck a chord with Hoosiers and those outside the state, capturing the attention of celebrities and national and international news outlets.
Colts punter Pat McAfee, novelist John Green, television personality Montel Williams, and Star Trek actor George Takei all expressed opposition to the measure.
And so many calls flooded the governor’s office that the phone system was temporarily overwhelmed.
Shortly after Pence signed the bill, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff announced he would no longer send employees or customers to Indiana.
“Today we are canceling all programs that require our customers/employees to travel to Indiana to face discrimination,” he tweeted.
The NCAA, which is holding the Final Four men’s basketball tournament in Indianapolis next week, also expressed concerns. NCAA President Mark Emmert said the Indianapolis-based group would examine “how it might affect future events as well as our workforce.”
Read more: indystar.com