Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in his State of the State speech Tuesday night finally addressed the most contentious issue at the Statehouse this year—how to balance religious freedom with civil rights for LGBT people—but his statements left unclear whether he would sign any of the bills proposed so far during this General Assembly.
Pence said he would give “careful consideration” to any bill sent to his desk but stressed tenets of the Indiana Constitution supporting religious freedom and freedom of conscience.
“I will not support any bill that diminishes the religious freedom of Hoosiers or that interferes with the constitutional rights of our citizens to live out their beliefs in worship, service or work,” Pence said near the end of a speech that touched on economic development, education and other topics. “Our freedoms are too precious to our people, too vital to our well-being and have been bought at too high a price to do any less.”
He said lawmakers are charged with the question of “whether it is necessary or even possible to reconcile these two values in the law without compromising the freedoms we hold dear.”
Afterward, Democrats, LGBT advocates and business groups said Pence’s words showed a lack of leadership on an issue that has dominated legislative debates and news coverage since he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act during the 2015 legislative session.
“I think you are avoiding a mess you helped create for our state,” said House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City.
One thing became clear: Pence is not likely to support the “four words and a comma” solution proposed by those groups to add sexual orientation and gender identity into the civil rights law without some exceptions for religious objectors.
“Once again Mike Pence has proven he’s just an officeholder, not a leader," said John Gregg, the leading Democratic candidate for governor, in a written statement. "On issue after issue critical to the state of Indiana, he passes the buck, rather than doing the job he was elected to do. His refusal to take a stand for equality is unconscionable given the fact that he created this mess, which continues to damage Indiana’s economy and reputation. This failure of leadership is disappointing, but sadly not surprising."
Pence’s speech followed months of anticipation—and frustration—from advocates and some lawmakers who have wanted to know where the governor stands on addressing the issue after last year’s fallout from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which opponents said would legalize discrimination against LGBT people.
Senate Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said he believes two plans floated by Senate Republicans would pass muster under the governor’s wishes. One adds sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under the state’s civil rights law while offering religious exemptions; another simply protects sexual orientation from discrimination and refers transgender rights to a study committee.
“I don’t think [the speech] changes anything,” Long said. “What he is talking about already exists in those two bills, in my opinion.”
Leading Democrats decried Pence's approach to the issue in his speech. They have been clear in their call to take the “four words and a comma approach,” meaning simply including sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under the state’s civil rights law and offering no additional religious protections.
“I’m profoundly disappointed and somewhat disturbed with what I heard,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. “It sent a message to me he would be perfectly happy with us doing absolutely nothing. I think this is a governor who is very proud of RFRA.”
Meanwhile, a coalition of Indiana businesses have joined gay rights advocacy groups to advocate for LGBT civil rights protections, saying the RFRA controversy was bad for business and that recruiting and retaining a talented workforce in Indiana meant it needed to be a place where diverse people want to live.
Indiana Competes director Peter Hanscom said he was disappointed with Pence’s “shoulder shrug” on the issue during his speech. He said the recommendation from businesses to expand civil rights protections has been ignored.
"While Governor Pence emphasized tonight that Hoosiers should not be harassed or mistreated, he said nothing about condemning Hoosiers being fired, removed from their home or denied public service because of who they are,” Hanscom said. “We see a lack of leadership from the governor."
Freedom Indiana, a grassroots group that has rallied for LGBT rights, called the governor’s speech “a complete letdown.”
“Protecting everyone in our state should not be this difficult,” said campaign manager Chris Paulsen, “but we will make sure lawmakers and the governor understand that doing nothing is not an option—and creating another RFRA situation would be even worse.”