Indiana's Republican legislative leaders said Monday they're working on adding language to a new state law to make it clear that it doesn't allow discrimination against gays and lesbians, while Democrats countered that a full repeal is the only way to stem the widespread criticism.
The measure prohibits state laws that "substantially burden" a person's ability to follow his or her religious beliefs. The definition of "person" includes religious institutions, businesses and associations.
Businesses and organizations across the country have canceled future travel to Indiana, tabled expansion plans or criticized the legislation. Opponents have taken to social media with the hashtag #boycottindiana.
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long said during a Monday news conference that similar laws exist across the country and did not generate the backlash that Indiana has seen. Bosma blamed the reaction on a "mischaracterization" of the law by both opponents and some supporters.
"What we had hoped for with the bill was a message of inclusion, inclusion of all religious beliefs," Bosma said. "What instead has come out as a message of exclusion, and that was not the intent."
Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed the measure last week and defended it during a television appearance Sunday but did not directly answer questions about whether it allowed discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Long stressed the new law is based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 that has been upheld by courts.
"This law does not and will not be allowed to discriminate against anyone," Long said.
The furor over the Indiana law stems in part from the fact that the state's civil rights laws don't ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. Long and Bosma did not appear eager to add that language into the measure, noting that doing so would be a big policy decision and only four weeks remain in this year's legislative session.
Conservative political columnist Abdul-Hakim Shabazz suggested Sunday in his latest Indiana Forefront column that the bill could be fixed with one easy sentence that says RFRA cannot be used as a defense against a state, federal or local anti-discrimination law.
But that change isn't likely to be enough for its loudest critics. Democratic House Minority Leader Scott Pelath said Indiana has been embarrassed and that a full repeal is needed, not "fig-leaf" fixes.
"That is the only thing that will start the process of reversing the damage that has been done to the people of this state," Pelath said.
The bill easily passed through the state's Republican-dominated Legislature, with no Democratic lawmakers supporting and only a handful of Republicans voting against it.
Some national gay-rights groups say the law allows lawmakers in Indiana and several other states where similar bills have been proposed this year to sanction discrimination as the nation's highest court prepares to mull the gay marriage question.
Supporters of the law insist the law will keep the government from compelling people to provide services they find objectionable on religious grounds. Arkansas is poised to follow in Indiana's footsteps, as Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he'll sign a measure moving through the state's Legislature.