(Reuters) - Indiana’s Republican Governor Mike Pence, responding to national outrage over the state’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, said on Tuesday he will “fix” it to make clear businesses cannot use the law to deny services to same-sex couples.
Pence, in a news conference, said the law he signed last week had been unfairly “smeared” but he called on the state’s Republican-controlled General Assembly to come up with clarifications this week.
“I believe it would be appropriate to make it clear that this law does not give businesses the right to deny services to anyone,” he told reporters at a testy, nationally televised news conference in the state capital, Indianapolis.
Arkansas’ Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson may soon face a similar firestorm after his state’s Republican-controlled legislature on Tuesday passed a similar bill and sent it to his desk.
Hutchinson has signaled he would sign the bill but opposition mounted on Tuesday when the Democratic mayor of Little Rock said the law was too divisive and asked the governor to veto it.
Pence, who was brought up Catholic but is now an evangelical Christian, faced massive pressure from businesses over the bill, which passed with an overwhelming majority in the state’s legislature.
Major companies including Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Apple Inc, Angie’s List, diesel engine-maker Cummins Inc, Salesforce Marketing Cloud and drug-maker Eli Lilly and Co have called on him to clarify or repeal the law.
Rock band Wilco canceled a show in Indianapolis and Democratic governors from both coasts, joined by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday, banned official travel to Indiana. Auto racing company NASCAR and the Indianapolis-based NCAA, an organization for university athletic programs, expressed concern over the law.
At the news conference Pence said the law protected people of all faiths from being forced by the government to go against their beliefs. The lawyer and one-time radio talk-show host, seen as a moderate on education and health-care, repeatedly denied that the intent of the law was to allow discrimination.
Critics said Indiana’s law as it is now written would allow businesses to deny services such as wedding cakes or wedding music for gay marriages on religious grounds.
Pence found support from conservatives including Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz and possible presidential contenders Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, who praised the law.
While Arkansas lawmakers moved ahead, controversy over Indiana’s law appeared to stall Religious Freedom Restoration Acts in the legislatures in Georgia and North Carolina.
The federal government and 20 states have passed such acts, known as RFRAs, since the early 1990s but Indiana’s is the first enacted since gay marriage became legal in many states last year and it has been seen by critics as a backlash against same-sex marriage.
Indiana’s RFRA is also one of the first to adopt language from recent appeals court rulings and specifically allow private parties to sue each other on religious freedom grounds.
Arkansas’ RFRA also allows religious discrimination lawsuits between private parties, and goes a step further in that it would bar employees from invoking religious freedom in suing employers, according to law professor and long-time RFRA opponent Marci Hamilton of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
Earlier RFRA’s mostly gave individuals recourse to sue government entities they claim are infringing on their First Amendment right of free exercise of religion.
For instance, using an RFRA lawsuit, a Muslim man won the right to not shave his beard while incarcerated and Amish have challenged compulsory school attendance rules.
Same-sex marriage became legal in Indiana under an appeals court ruling last year.
Jim Bennett, Midwest director for LGBT rights group Lambda Legal, said the business uproar had forced Pence to make changes after he pushed the law through quickly and refused to discuss possible balances to protect same-sex couples.
“He did not want to have a discussion. Fortunately for Indiana and the country, the business community and all the people demanded that discussion take place,” Bennett said.
Lori Windham, senior counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has brought RFRA cases on behalf of people of different faiths, said the clarification shouldn’t be necessary.
“It should already be clear that these laws require courts to balance religious freedom against other interests. They don’t mean religion always wins, they mean that religious people have their day in court,” she said.
Reporting by Mary Wisniewski and Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, Emily Stephenson and Susan Heavey in Washington, D.C., and Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Writing by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by James Dalgleish