Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, an ardent champion of his state’s newly passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is now backpedaling faster than an NFL cornerback. Earlier today, he publicly pledged to take immediate steps to ensure that the law that he just signed can never used to justify or legalize discrimination against gay Americans.
And by immediate steps, I mean immediate.
“After much reflection and in consultation with leadership in the General Assembly, I’ve come to the conclusion that it would be helpful to move legislation this week that makes it clear that this law does not give businesses a right to deny services to anyone,” the stridently conservative Pence told a press conference.
“No one should be harassed or mistreated because of who they are, who they love or what they believe,” he said, sounding for all the world like a mainstream Democrat.
We still don’t know exactly what the proposed new law will say, but according to Indiana Senate President Pro Tempore David Long, the new language should be ready to go by the end of the day. That pace of legislation is remarkable, and it reflects just how serious the issue has become. Businesses were pulling out of Indiana; national boycotts were being organized. Even NASCAR issued a condemnatory statement, saying it is “disappointed by the recent legislation passed in Indiana. We will not embrace nor participate in exclusion or intolerance.”
Finally aware just how out of step they had become with the national mainstream, Indiana leaders folded. As the Indianapolis Star reports:
When asked whether Christian businesses should be compelled to supply services to gay and lesbian weddings, Pence answered: “I don’t support discrimination against anyone.”
“I don’t support discrimination against gays and lesbians or anyone else. I abhor discrimination.”
It’s important to note just how complete Pence’s retreat really is. He now claims that he does not support legislation allowing anti-gay discrimination, yet he has a long history in Congress of doing exactly that. At last week’s private signing ceremony for the RFRA bill, he invited officials of groups that bitterly oppose gay-rights legislation and gay marriage to join him in celebrating its passage. He knew exactly what he was doing, and what he was doing was exactly the opposite of what he now claims to believe.
In addition, Republican leaders in the Indiana Legislature were repeatedly offered amendments that would have made it clear that the bill was not intended to legalize anti-gay discrimination, and they repeatedly refused to include those amendments. Now, after doing considerable damage to their state and their party, they will try to do exactly what they had refused to do earlier.
You really really really have to hope that Georgia leaders are watching events as they play out in Indiana, and are learning the appropriate lessons. Like their Hoosier counterparts, they too have tried to block amendments intended to make it clear that a Georgia RFRA would not protect anti-gay discrimination. Like Pence and other Indiana leaders, they too have tried to play cute about its real impact while winking and nodding to anti-gay groups excited about its potential passage.
In fact, Indiana is about one week farther down the very same road that Georgia has been traveling, a road leading to the very same destination. To now continue down that path, knowing where it will take us, would be deeply irresponsible.
In fact, I think this moment may prove to be truly historic. It’s as clear a statement as possible about the national mood regarding gay rights, and about the lack of remaining patience with those who would still try to justify anti-gay bigotry, either directly or indirectly. The Republican Party nationwide — not just in Georgia, but nationwide — had better adjust its message accordingly or reap the bitterness that it sows.