Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said he signed the controversial “religious freedom restoration” bill into law Thursday morning in a private ceremony.
A last-ditch surge of complaints about the legislation from numerous business and political leaders, a religious group and hospitality interests was not enough to make the governor veto the bill.
“Today I signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, because I support the freedom of religion for every Hoosier of every faith," Pence said in a written statement. “The Constitution of the United States and the Indiana Constitution both provide strong recognition of the freedom of religion but today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action."
The legislation, Senate Bill 101, would prohibit any state laws that "substantially burden" a person's ability to follow his or her religious beliefs and has a definition of a person that includes religious institutions, businesses and associations.
Groups supporting the measure say it would prevent the government from compelling people to provide services such as catering or photography for same-sex weddings or other activities they find objectionable for religious reasons.
Opponents say such a law could provide legal cover for discrimination against gay people.
“This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it," Pence said. "In fact, it does not even apply to disputes between private parties unless government action is involved. For more than twenty years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation’s anti-discrimination laws, and it will not in Indiana."
Indiana is the first state to enact such a change this year among about a dozen where such proposals have been introduced.
Pence, a Republican, backed the bill as it moved through the Legislature and spoke at a Statehouse rally last month that drew hundreds of supporters of the proposal.
Reaction to the decision was swift and divided.
Indiana Right to Life President and CEO Mike Fichter praised the new law, saying it would give abortion opponents legal recourse if they are pressured to support the procedure. The organization circulated an online petition to thank Pence for signing the bill.
Freedom Indiana, which led last year's successful fight against efforts to add a gay marriage ban to the state constitution, called it "a sad day for Indiana," saying Pence and lawmakers ignored concerns of thousands of Indiana residents.
"We made it clear that this law will only be used to harm other Hoosiers, and that's not the Indiana way. The lawmakers didn't listen. The governor didn't listen," the group said in a statement.
The bill signing comes just more than a week before NCAA men's Final Four games at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis, but the college sports organization hasn't taken a position on the issue.
"We are examining the details of this bill, however, the NCAA national office is committed to an inclusive environment where all individuals enjoy equal access to events," the Indianapolis-based group said in a statement.
Supporters say discrimination concerns are overblown because the bill is modeled after a federal religious freedom law Congress passed in 1993, and similar laws are on the books in 19 states. However, the current political climate is far different than it was when most of those were approved because the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this year on whether gay marriage bans violate the Constitution.
Conservative groups say the Indiana measure merely seeks to prevent the government from compelling people to provide such things as catering or photography for same-sex weddings or other activities they find objectionable on religious grounds.
"I think you will find that, if you do your homework in it, this law is not going to allow you to discriminate against anyone else or anyone's rights in this country," GOP Indiana Senate President Pro Tem David Long said.
But the Republican mayor of Indianapolis said he believed the proposal would send the "wrong signal" for the city, and its tourism and convention agency raised concerns that it could lead some convention planners to regard Indiana as an unwelcoming place.
The Indianapolis chamber of commerce and Columbus-based engine maker Cummins Inc. are among business groups which have opposed the bill on the grounds that it could make it more difficult to attract top companies and employees.
Adrian Swartout, the CEO of the 50,000-person Gen Con gamers' convention, said the legislation could affect the group's decision to hold the major event in Indianapolis past 2020. He said it would have "a direct negative impact on the state's economy."
Similar bills have been advancing this year in the Arkansas and Georgia legislatures. Last year, Mississippi enacted a religious objection law just weeks after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, vetoed a similar effort there amid criticism from major corporations.
Following is Pence's complete statement:
“Today I signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, because I support the freedom of religion for every Hoosier of every faith.
“The Constitution of the United States and the Indiana Constitution both provide strong recognition of the freedom of religion but today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action.
“One need look no further than the recent litigation concerning the Affordable Care Act. A private business and our own University of Notre Dame had to file lawsuits challenging provisions that required them to offer insurance coverage in violation of their religious views.
“Fortunately, in the 1990s Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—limiting government action that would infringe upon religion to only those that did not substantially burden free exercise of religion absent a compelling state interest and in the least restrictive means.
“Last year the Supreme Court of the United States upheld religious liberty in the Hobby Lobby case based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but that act does not apply to individual states or local government action. At present, nineteen states—including our neighbors in Illinois and Kentucky—have adopted Religious Freedom Restoration statutes. And in eleven additional states, the courts have interpreted their constitutions to provide a heightened standard for reviewing government action.
“In order to ensure that religious liberty is fully protected under Indiana law, this year our General Assembly joined those 30 states and the federal government to enshrine these principles in Indiana law, and I fully support that action.
“This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it. In fact, it does not even apply to disputes between private parties unless government action is involved. For more than twenty years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation’s anti-discrimination laws, and it will not in Indiana.
“Indiana is rightly celebrated for the hospitality, generosity, tolerance, and values of our people, and that will never change. Faith and religion are important values to millions of Hoosiers and with the passage of this legislation, we ensure that Indiana will continue to be a place where we respect freedom of religion and make certain that government action will always be subject to the highest level of scrutiny that respects the religious beliefs of every Hoosier of every faith.”