Indiana Republicans ‘fix’ religious law after angry backlash

State legislators propose new language to anti-gay law in response to national uproar

Republicans stepped back from Indiana’s “religious freedom” law as state lawmakers moved to change the legislation amid uproar that the anti-gay statute made it legal to discriminate in the midwest state.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed into law last week by Indiana's Republican governor, Mike Pence, caused a storm of controversy on the basis that the law aimed at protecting religious liberty made it lawful for private companies and citizens to cite religious beliefs in refusing services to gays and lesbians.

In response to a national backlash, opposition from major American businesses, including Apple and Walmart, and boycotts by liberal-state governors and city mayors, Indiana’s legislators scrambled to clarify the law to ensure that it did not permit discrimination.

New language was proposed to the legislation so that it "does not authorise" a provider to refuse a service "on the basis of race, colour, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender, identity or United States military service."


Establish a defence

The updated Religious Freedom Restoration Act would also prevent anyone from being able to “establish a defence” to a civil legal action or prosecution for refusing to offer or provide a service or goods.

"We're here to make it right," said Brian Bosma, the Republican speaker of Indiana's House of Representatives. The state's lawmakers never intended the original bill to permit discrimination, he said.

Reflecting the concern about the damage to the state’s reputation and economy, business, civic and sports leaders and gay activists spoke publicly in support of the legal fix to the contentious state legislation.

The climbdown followed the decision of Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson to seek anti-discriminatory changes to a similar bill in his state where opponents, including his own son, objected to the law.

Noting his son's opposition, Mr Hutchinson, a Republican, summarised the clash between traditional religious beliefs and changing social values in the US, which is being fought out on the national political stage over the measures in red states Indiana and Arkansas.

“The issue has become divisive because our nation remains split on how to balance the diversity of our culture with the traditions and firmly held religious convictions,” he said. “It has divided families, and there is clearly a generational gap on the issue.”

After initially defending Indiana's governor for doing the "right thing" over the law, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, an expected Republican presidential candidate, appeared to soften his support.

Speaking at a private fundraiser in Silicon Valley, Mr Bush said that a "consensus- oriented" approach would have better following the example in red-state Utah, where gay rights supporters and Mormons negotiated an anti-discrimination bill.

Business fears

His softening approach points to the influence of the Republican business establishment, which fears that the attempts by the party to appeal to hard-right social conservatives and evangelical Christians may not just be bad for business but may damage prospects of winning over more moderate voters in the 2016 presidential race.

Texas senator Ted Cruz, the only Republican so far to declare his presidential candidacy, maintained his strong support for the original Bill.

In a bid to rally conservatives, Mr Cruz on Wednesday told supporters in conservative Iowa, an early bellwether in the presidential race, that "we need to stand up as courageous conservatives."

Opposition from businesses to the Indiana law shows the challenge facing Republicans who want to appease both their conservative grassroots and the influential Republican corporate base.

Conservative group Advance America, which lobbied for Indiana's original law, said the proposed changes would "destroy" the law.

“Christian bakers, florists and photographers would now be forced by the government to participate in a homosexual wedding or else they would be punished by the government,” said the group.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times