Indiana update: Pence digs himself even deeper

    Let’s stick with the Indiana gay-hate saga, for at least one more day, because the plot continues to thicken (and sicken).

    This is what we journalists call “a great running story,” and, as a bonus, it features a right-wing politician who’s clearly fixated on shoveling himself into an ever deeper hole.

    Gov. Mike Pence, who signed the state law that offers gay-hating bigots a God exemption, penned a guest column today in The Wall Street Journal. In his desperate bid to stop the threatened exodus of economic investment and convention bookings, and to mollify the anger of mainstream businesses and the Republican mayor of Indianapolis, Pence tried two arguments: (a) “I abhor discrimination,” and (b) his Indiana law “simply mirrors federal law that President Clinton signed in 1993.”

    I’ll say this as charitably as I can: On both counts, he’s lying.

    Pence doesn’t “abhor” discrimination; quote the contrary. During his congressional career, he repeatedly endorsed it. Ten years ago he voted for a House bill that sought to ban gay marriage nationwide. Eight years ago he voted against a House bill that would’ve banned discrimination against gays in the workplace (he said that any bill that bans discrimination “wages war on freedom of religion in the workplace”). Five years ago he insisted that gays who serve their country should stay in the closet; he said that the U.S military should not become “a backdrop for social experimentation.”

    Actually, if Pence truly “abhors” discrimination, he would ask his Republican legislature to draft new language that would bar discrimination against gays statewide. But naturally he refuses (“I will not push for that,” he said Sunday), because the whole purpose of the “religious freedom” law is to make it easier for gay-haters to spurn gay customers in the name of God. Religious conservative lobbiysts have already bragged about that. Gay marriage is coming nationwide, and Pence’s pals are stacking their sandbags by any means possible.

    And that’s precisely what Indiana’s business leaders, including the state Chamber of Commerce, are so upset about. Mindful of the millions of dollars at stake, and clearly cognizant that they live in the 21st century, they don’t want Indiana to be known as a bigot backwater.

    In a letter to Pence yesterday, the CEOs of nine companies with strong Indiana holdings – Angie’s List, Anthem, Cummins, Dow AgroSciences, Eli Lilly and Co., Emmis Communications, IU Health, Roche Diagnostics and Salesforce Marketing – pleaded for a glimmer of gubernatorial enlightenment. They demanded “new legislation that makes it clear that neither the Religious Freedom Restoration Act nor any other Indiana law can be used to justify discrimination based upon sexual orientation or gender identity.”

    Good luck getting that from the guy who claims he “abhors” discrimination.

    His other Wall Street Journal claim is that the new Indiana law “mirrors” the federal religious-freedom law signed by Clinton in ’93. Pence’s knee-jerk defenders, most of whom couldn’t read a law if they followed each word with their fingers and moved their lips in unison, have swallowed that lie. So let’s demolish it.

    The federal law, and virtually all the state religious-freedom laws, were crafted to protect freedom of worship from overt government intrusion. For instance, Native Americans wanted to use peyote in their religious ceremonies, but the feds barred the practice, citing the drug laws. The federal religious-freedom measure that Clinton signed was enacted to protect that kind of worship.

    The federal law did not give religious individuals the right to discriminate. But the Indiana law codifies the right to discriminate – and it explicitly gives for-profit businesses and corporations the opportunity to spurn a customer via “the free exercise of religion.” And whereas the federal law is all about protecting the religious individual from government meddling, the Indiana law says the religious individual can invoke his faith when he’s challenged by a private party (i.e., a gay person who sues on the grounds of discrimination).

    The devil is always in the details. Pence’s law says, “A person whose exercise of religion has been substantially burdened, or is likely to be substantially burdened, by a violation of this chapter may assert the violation or impending violation as a claim or defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding, regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding.” (Neither the federal law, nor 18 of the 19 state laws, grants “free exercise of religion” rights to businesses that discriminate against private parties.)

    So at this point, Pence really has two choices: He can stop insulting our intelligence, or he can stop digging. The big question is whether his shovel is too firmly embedded.

    ——-

    Update: Pence announced this morning that he is extricating his shovel and throwing in the towel. Now he says that he wants to amend the “religious freedom” law, to bar discrimination against gays. This is after he just spent four days insisting that the law as written didn’t discriminate against gays…but hey, whatever. At least he has finally felt compelled to join the American mainstream.

    By the way, I received an email last night from a reader who insisted that I’m wrong to attribute pro-gay sentiments to the American mainstream; according to this reader, most people believe that a business owner should be free to reject a customer on religious grounds.

    I asked the reader for statistical proof. He said in response that he didn’t have any proof. He just said, “I read something about that on your comment board.” I said in response – and I can’t believe I even needed to say this – that it’s a fool’s errand to place one’s trust in troll ignorance.

    The fact is, the American mainstream does not believe that customers should be turned away on religious grounds. Here’s the key quote, from a ’14 national poll sponsored by the Public Religion Research Institute: “Fewer than 1-in-5 Americans say that small business owners should be able to refuse services on religious grounds to individuals who happen to be gay or lesbian (16 percent), compared to 80 percent who say they should not be able to do this.”

    So maybe Pence is finally getting the mainstream message.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.