Mike Pence Touts Religious Freedom in Indiana State of the State

The Republican governor walked a careful line on LGBT civil rights but emphasized the need for any new legislation to protect religious liberty above all.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence delivers his State of the State address on Tuesday in Indianapolis.
AP Photo/Darron Cummings
Karyn Bruggeman
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Karyn Bruggeman
Jan. 12, 2016, 9:03 p.m.

In­di­ana Gov. Mike Pence de­clined to ex­pli­citly say Tues­day dur­ing his State of the State ad­dress wheth­er law­makers should add civil-rights pro­tec­tions for gays to state law, en­sur­ing that the de­bate will con­tin­ue as he seeks a second term.

In­stead, Pence warned le­gis­lat­ors to pro­tect re­li­gious free­dom, say­ing, “I will not sup­port any bill that di­min­ishes the re­li­gious free­dom of Hoo­siers or that in­ter­feres with the con­sti­tu­tion­al rights of our cit­izens to live out their be­liefs in wor­ship, ser­vice, or work.”

Pence’s sig­na­ture last year on the Re­li­gious Free­dom Res­tor­a­tion Act—a bill op­pon­ents feared would al­low re­li­giously af­fil­i­ated busi­nesses to dis­crim­in­ate against gays and les­bi­ans—and the up­roar that fol­lowed im­me­di­ately im­pacted any hopes he had of run­ning for pres­id­ent.

It’s now at the cen­ter of Pence’s reelec­tion, as he finds him­self among Demo­crats’ top tar­gets.

Demo­crats, busi­ness co­ali­tions, and LGBT ad­vocacy groups are seek­ing the ad­op­tion of new LGBT pro­tec­tions at the state level, something Pence’s likely Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ent, former state House Speak­er John Gregg, has been par­tic­u­larly vo­cal about.

The Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled le­gis­lature, and now Pence, have been luke­warm to the idea of adding ad­di­tion­al pro­tec­tions after Pence ad­ded a meas­ure to cla­ri­fy that the law does not al­low busi­nesses to dis­crim­in­ate. On Tues­day, Gregg cam­paign man­ager Tim Hende­r­son called Pence a “na­tion­al em­bar­rass­ment” be­cause of his un­will­ing­ness to stake out a clear po­s­i­tion. 

In re­sponse to the con­tin­ued back­lash, In­di­ana Re­pub­lic­ans in­tro­duced a draft bill late last year that at­temp­ted to bal­ance LGBT rights with calls for pro­tec­tions for re­li­gious ex­pres­sion, but Pence de­clined to weigh in on the mat­ter un­til Tues­day. Even then, he left it un­til the very end of his speech, and began his fi­nal com­ments with a re­mind­er that “jobs, the eco­nomy, schools, roads and con­front­ing drug ab­use” are his top pri­or­it­ies for the up­com­ing le­gis­lat­ive ses­sion.

Pence kept his mes­sage re­l­at­ively vague, and im­plied that the In­di­ana con­sti­tu­tion of­fers suf­fi­cient pro­tec­tion for LGBT res­id­ents as it is cur­rently writ­ten, when it states that “all people are cre­ated equal.” Pence ac­know­ledged how fraught the top­ic was for ad­voc­ates on both sides, and he said he be­lieves that “no one should be har­assed or mis­treated be­cause of who they are, who they love, or what they be­lieve.”

But he also em­phas­ized the state con­sti­tu­tion’s pro­tec­tion of “the right to wor­ship Almighty God … ac­cord­ing to the dic­tates of [our] own con­sciences” and the pro­vi­sion that “No law shall, in any case whatever, con­trol the free ex­er­cise and en­joy­ment of re­li­gious opin­ions, nor in­ter­fere with the rights of con­science.”

Pence con­cluded by say­ing he would con­sider any bill the le­gis­lature sends him, in­dic­at­ing he won’t play an act­ive role in shap­ing it.

In­di­ana Demo­crat­ic Party spokes­man Drew An­der­son cri­ti­cized Pence’s speech, say­ing in a state­ment: “Hoo­siers de­serve a gov­ernor who won’t put their ideo­logy ahead of the state’s over­all well-be­ing. That per­son is John Gregg.”

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