Governor backs down, seeks ‘fix’ to Indiana religion law

Washington (AFP) – Indiana Governor Mike Pence, facing mounting criticism, said Tuesday he will seek to tweak a contentious new law that some warn discriminates against gays.

Pence told a press conference that the law he signed last week “does not give anyone a license to discriminate.”

But amid threats of crippling boycotts, the state’s largest newspaper demanded in a front-page editorial that Pence “fix this now” by taking immediate action.

“We’ve got a perception problem,” the embattled Republican governor acknowledged.

“After much reflection, and in consultation with leadership of the general assembly, I’ve come to the conclusion that it would be helpful to move legislation this week to make it clear that this law does not give businesses a right to deny services to anyone,” Pence said.

“It’s a fix of a bill that through mischaracterization and confusion has come to be greatly misunderstood.”

Although he insisted he wanted to act this week and “move forward,” Pence did not specify what remedy would be introduced and he stopped short of saying the law will be repealed.

Democratic state Senator Tim Lanane said Pence must take pro-active steps. “He can’t just tinker with this language,” Lanane told CNN.

Indiana, where same-sex marriage has been legally recognized since last October, has faced a backlash since the legislature passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Supporters insist the law protects people or businesses from infringement on their religious beliefs.

But critics including gay rights activists say it lets Indiana businesses whose owners reject homosexuality on religious grounds turn away LGBT customers.

The law specifically allows individuals and businesses who face discrimination suits to use the defense that serving homosexuals “substantially burdened” their religious freedom.

While Pence argued similar federal legislation was signed by president Bill Clinton in 1993, the White House argued that the Clinton law only applied to interactions with government, whereas Indiana’s new law could apply to private transactions.

“This is a significant expansion of the law in terms of the way that it would apply,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest warned.

- National debate -

The issue has sparked intense national debate, with several Indiana-based organizations caught in the crossfire.

Critics have called on the National Collegiate Athletics Association, headquartered in Indiana, to move next weekend’s Final Four basketball semifinals out of host city Indianapolis.

US stock-car series NASCAR, which features a race in Indiana, said it was “disappointed” in the measure.

Companies like Apple, Levi’s and Yelp issued strong rebukes, and some states like Connecticut and cities including San Francisco banned their government employees from traveling to Indiana.

Rock band Wilco announced it cancelled its May 7 show in Indianapolis in response to the law, which it said “feels like thinly disguised legal discrimination.”

Several Republican 2016 presidential hopefuls rushed to Pence’s defense, including Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio and former Texas governor Rick Perry.

Senator Ted Cruz, who recently announced his White House campaign, said Pence was “holding the line to protect religious liberty.”

Democrat Hillary Clinton, an all-but-certain presidential candidate, slammed the law’s passage as “sad.”

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard is Republican like Pence, but staunchly opposes the law and said it was critical to tamp down the uproar.

“We spent 30, 40 years building up this reputation as a great convention city, as a great sports event city,” he told National Public Radio.

“We just can’t have that hurt as much as it has been hurting.”

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