The Indy Star reports…
“Gov. Mike Pence, scorched by a fast-spreading political firestorm, told The Star on Saturday that he will support the introduction of legislation to “clarify” that Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not promote discrimination against gays and lesbians.
“I support religious liberty, and I support this law,” Pence said in an exclusive interview. “But we are in discussions with legislative leaders this weekend to see if there’s a way to clarify the intent of the law.”
The governor, although not ready to provide details on what the new bill will say, said he expects the legislation to be introduced into the General Assembly this coming week.
Asked if that legislation might include making gay and lesbian Hoosiers a protected legal class, Pence said, “That’s not on my agenda.”
Amid the deepest crisis of his political career, Pence said repeatedly that the intense blowback against the new law is the result of a “misunderstanding driven by misinformation.”
He adamantly insisted that RFRA will not open the door to state-sanctioned discrimination against gays and lesbians. But he did acknowledge that Indiana’s image — and potentially its economic health — has been hurt badly by the controversy.
I spoke with Pence on the same day that thousands of people rallied at the Statehouse in opposition to the law. And the same day that Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle announced that his company will abandon a deal with the state and city to expand the company’s headquarters in Indianapolis because of RFRA’s passage.
Oesterle’s statement is a telling sign that the outrage over RFRA isn’t limited only to the political left. Oesterle directed Republican Mitch Daniels’ 2004 campaign for governor. And it’s a signal that the damage from the RFRA debacle could be extensive.
Behind the scenes, Pence and his team have been scrambling to mitigate that damage — both to the state and to the governor’s political career.
Pence said, for example, that he had a “cordial and productive” conversation with Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff, who announced shortly after Pence signed the RFRA legislation on Thursday that the company will cancel all corporate-related travel to Indiana. That conversation, however, has not led to a reversal of the Salesforce decision.
I asked the governor if he had anticipated the strongly negative reaction set off by the bill’s passage. His response made it clear that he and his team didn’t see it coming.
“I just can’t account for the hostility that’s been directed at our state,” he said. “I’ve been taken aback by the mischaracterizations from outside the state of Indiana about what is in this bill.”
In defense of the legislation, he noted that 19 other states and the federal government have adopted RFRA laws similar to Indiana’s. And he pointed out that President Barack Obama voted for Illinois’ version of RFRA as a state senator.
The governor also criticized the news media’s coverage of the legislation. “Despite the irresponsible headlines that have appeared in the national media, this law is not about discrimination,” he said. “If it was, I would have vetoed it.”
Yet, those justifications, cited repeatedly by the governor’s supporters in recent days, have done little to quell the controversy.
Which is why the proposal to clarify the law’s intent with a new bill has gained traction among Pence’s advisers in the past couple of days.
Pence also plans to fight back in the state and national media. He’s scheduled, for instance, to defend the law Sunday morning on ABC’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos. “I’m not going to take it (the criticism) lying down,” he said.
As we wrapped up the conversation, I asked Pence: What answer do you have for the many gays and lesbians — and their friends and families — who’ve asked this past week if they are still welcome in Indiana?
“First, this law is not about discrimination. It’s about protecting religious liberty and giving people full access to the judicial system,” he said. “But, yes, Hoosier hospitality is about making all people feel welcome in our state. We did that with the Super Bowl and with many other events, and with bringing businesses here. We will continue to do that.”
Whether Pence can get that message across — whether he still has the credibility to get people to believe it — will help determine the extent of RFRA’s damage. First, and most important, for the state. But also for Mike Pence’s political future and legacy.”