US states on back foot as religious freedom laws bad for business

Social values on 2016 campaign agenda as liberals and conservatives clash in Indiana

The national uproar over new religious freedom state laws has shown how the conflict between defenders of religious liberty and opponents of discrimination against gays and lesbians is turning a social issue into a major political talking point as candidates start cranking up their 2016 presidential campaigns.

Mike Pence, the Republican governor of Indiana, signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law last week, claiming that the legislation was the same as a federal law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993 protecting religious minorities from government.

Pence, himself a possible back-of-the-field presidential runner, squirmed when quizzed about the law by ABC's George Stephanopoulos on his Sunday talk show. He was unable to give a yes or no answer on whether the law would make it legal for a Christian baker, florist or photographer to refuse to offer their services in a same-sex wedding, a subject that will be familiar to people in Northern Ireland given the legal battle over the gay marriage wedding cake.

“If I thought it was about discrimination, I would have vetoed it,” Pence said last week. “In fact, it doesn’t even apply to disputes between private individuals unless government action is involved.”

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The White House has said that Indiana's law was "much broader" than the 1993 federal legislation as it also applies to "a partnership, a limited liability company, a corporation, a company, a firm, a society, a joint stock company or an unincorporated association.

"This is a much more open-ended piece of legislation that could reasonably be used to try to justify discriminating against somebody because of who they love," President Barack Obama's spokesman Josh Earnest said on Monday.

The backlash against Indiana is damaging the state where it hurts most: business. Tim Cook, the openly gay chief executive of Apple, said the company was "deeply disappointed" in Indiana's new law and in a similar bill passed in Arkansas, calling on that state's governor to veto the legislation. In a growing boycott, governors in liberal Connecticut, New York and Washington, along with mayors of Washington DC, Seattle and Denver, banned state- and city-funded travel to Indiana.

Battlegrounds

The adverse reaction has pushed Pence and other Republicans in Indiana into damage-control mode as the state’s reputation takes a battering as they seek to clarify the law.

Even though at least 19 American states have passed laws to protect religious freedoms, Indiana and Arkansas have become battlegrounds as the shift in favour of same-sex marriage and more liberal social values clashes with socially conservative views in Republican states.

Gay and lesbian couples can effectively marry in 37 states and the District of Columbia, representing a rapid level of social change since same-sex marriage was first permitted in Massachusetts in 2003.

Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, widely seen as the party's likely presidential nominee if she runs, and contenders such former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, have joined major companies to condemn Indiana and pressure Arkansas to reject the religious freedom law.

Doug McMillon, the chief executive of Arkansas-based retail giant Walmart, one of America’s biggest companies, urged state governor Asa Hutchinson to veto a bill that “threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion”. The pressure worked: Hutchinson yesterday refused to sign the bill and asked for changes to be made, noting that his son Seth signed the petition asking him to veto the legislation.

Expected Republican presidential challengers, with an eye on early conservative voters in first-to-vote states such as Iowa and South Carolina, defended Indiana's law. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush said that Pence "has done the right thing", adding that "once the facts are established, people aren't going to see this as discriminatory at all".

Courageous Texas senator Ted Cruz, the only Republican so far to announce he is running for president, praised Indiana for "giving voice to millions of courageous people across the country who are deeply concerned about the ongoing attacks on our personal liberties".

Their statements show the strong influence of social conservatives in the Republican race and reflect the challenge facing candidates whose policies must be conservative enough to win over grassroots support, but not so at odds with a rising movement of social change and more moderate voters that they might damage their presidential prospects.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent