Governor Mike Pence promised Tuesday to “fix” a controversial law with anti-gay undertones in an attempt to stop the constant hammering the state has received since he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law last week.
“I don’t believe for a minute that it was the intention of the general assembly to create a license to discriminate or right to deny services to gays, lesbians or anyone else in the state, and it certainly wasn’t my intent, but I can appreciate that has become the perception,” Pence said.
But advocates for changes to the law said if Pence didn’t know this would turn into a public-relations dumpster fire, he was either willfully ignorant or simply didn’t care.
Gay-rights advocates said they flagged the problem with the lack of protective language early in the process and pushed minor amendments to the bill, they say, would have largely resolved the issue.
It is unclear whether Pence himself knew about the amendments, but two people familiar with the lobbying effort behind the measures pro-LGBT measures said it was clear very early in the process that the governor did not want any changes to the bill.
“Pence and his party insisted that the bill not be balanced,” said Indiana Representative Ed Delaney, a Democrat and the author of an amendment that would have added the sentence “the protection of civil rights; or the prevention of discrimination; is a compelling government interest” to the bill.
Delaney said Pence’s office either didn’t know or didn’t care about the amendments.
“He’s created this problem,” Delaney said.
Another amendment would have exempted civil rights laws from RFRA—a change modeled after similar laws in Missouri and Texas. (Indiana’s civil rights laws do not protect LGBT individuals—but several local municipalities, like Indianapolis, have laws on the books that extend civil rights protections to the LGBT community).
Both amendments were rejected by the Republican-led Indiana legislature.
Pence’s retreat—just Sunday he said the law would not be changed—signified that Indiana’s culture warrior had, once again, bit off more than he could chew.
As the uproar started, Pence staff thought the issue would fade, according to a source last week familiar with a conversation between Pence and his aides. So while Pence expressed surprise at the vitriol created by the law, LGBT advocates said he should have seen it coming.
“There is no surprise in this,” Dale Carpenter, a constitutional and civil liberties law professor at the University of Minnesota Law School.
“They chose to reject those changes in the committee and again on the House floor that suggests to be the legislative intent here is to allow religious freedom to impact anti-discrimination laws,” said Tyler Deaton, senior advisor at American Unity Fund, a pro-gay conservative group.
Pence insisted in an uncharacteristically defensive interview on This Week last Sunday the bill was about religious liberty, not discrimination.
“There’s been shameless rhetoric about my state and about this law and about its intention all over the Internet,” he said. “People are trying to make it about one particular issue.”
“Shameless rhetoric” aside, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Pence’s explanation, starting with the actual signing of the bill.
And it had everything to do with the “particular issue.”
In a photo of the private signing ceremony, Pence is surrounded by a small group of people—including the three wise men of the anti-gay marriage movement of Indiana: Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana; Curt Smith, president of the Indiana Family Institute; and Eric Miller, executive director of Advance America.
Delaney said the presence of those individuals at the signing ceremony spoke volumes about the intent of the law.
“Is Mike Pence the only person who hasn’t read their press releases?” Delaney asked. “He knows what they wanted to do.”
Pence, himself, has a long, proud record of opposing gay rights during his tenure in Congress.
It also isn’t the first time he carried it into the governor’s mansion, where it has had some pretty embarrassing results.
A push for a constitutional ban on gay marriage in Indiana ended in failure but only after the Pence team tried to censor the opposition.
When gay-marriage proponents posted their displeasure with the measure on Facebook, Pence’s staff simply deleted the messages.
Initially, Pence and his staff said they just deleted comments that were obscene— but later fessed up to removing only the comments that disagreed with the governor’s position.
“On careful review, it appears that this was not always the case and some comments were being deleted simply because they expressed disagreement with my position. I regret that this occurred and sincerely apologize to all those who were affected,” Pence wrote in a Facebook post at the time.
Adding insult to injury the measure failed, giving Pence a black eye just a year into his governorship.
This is a slightly different response than Pence was used to during his time in Washington.
As a member of Congress he had no problem opposing rights for the LGBT community.
He voted for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would have added LGBT as a protected group on the federal level from discrimination in the workplace.
When the federal amendment to ban gay marriage failed to pass the House in 2006, Pence proclaimed it a “successful failure.”
“We poured a little more concrete in the footings of a building that will be built,” Pence said at the time, according to the Associated Press.
He was lauded as a hero by the right for his positions on social issues—receiving multiple “True Blue” awards from the Family Research Council for “his commitment to the family and sanctity of human life.”
The Indiana Family Institute, which was instrumental in crafting the RFRA bill, has likewise awarded him the “Friend of the Family Award.”
But being a culture warrior as governor, as he has found out, has higher stakes.
“He could afford to be a culture warrior because it wasn’t impacting an entire state’s economy,” Deaton said, referring to the burgeoning “boycott Indiana” campaign. “And now he has a different burden on his shoulders and this is turning out to cost the state tens of millions of dollars on the bottom line, thousands of jobs. This is really problematic for a governor.”