Mike Pence tries, and fails, to defend “straights only” law

On Sunday, Indiana Governor Mike Pence joined George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week, seeking to clarify the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which he signed on Thursday and has been widely interpreted as establishing a “right to discriminate” in the state.

But when repeatedly offered the chance to clarify that the law does not, in fact, legalize discrimination against members of the LGBT community, Pence balked:

In case you don’t want to sit through the whole interview, here’s a two-minute supercut of all the times Pence refused to say whether his new law allows for anti-LGBT discrimination:

Rather than actually clarifying the letter and spirit of the law, Pence relied on the following talking points, which he repeatedly pivoted back to in the face of very simple yes/no questions from Stephanopoulos:

  • Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act is no different from legislation signed by President Bill Clinton and voted for by then-State Senator Barack Obama
  • The law isn’t about discrimination; it’s about religious liberty
  • Tolerance is a two-way street

The problem, of course, is that none of those things are true:

Indiana’s RFRA is different

As noted by Lambda Legal, Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in the context of Indiana law, which does not outline parallel protections for members of the LGBT community. The Illinois law that Barack Obama voted for was passed in, well, Illinois, a state that already had LGBT protections on the books. And the federal RFRA was limited to government action, whereas Indiana’s law is so broadly written that it could be used as a defense in civil suits between individuals. The law, quite literally, makes “because God wills it” a valid legal defense for pretty much anything Indianans want to do:

When asked if he would support adding language to the RFRA outlining LGBT protections, or affirming existing anti-discrimination laws, Pence responded with, “That’s not on my agenda,” and added that he’s “not going to change” the law he signed. That makes sense, given that amendments that would have provided for such protections were repeatedly rejected as the bill made its way through Indiana’s legislature.

The law is about discrimination, not religious liberty

If the law does nothing more than reaffirm freedom of religion as defined by the First Amendment, as Pence so adamantly repeated during his interview, then why was it necessary? Surely the First Amendment covers any concerns religious people have about the right to practice their religion freely in the context of a secular liberal democracy, right?

Unless, of course, you want to protect religious people’s right to discriminate. In that case, you need to go above and beyond First Amendment protections.

And a quick look at the people celebrating the law provides a few clues as to what its real goals are: 

This law was not lobbied for by business leaders who are concerned about their ability to practice their religion. In fact, practically every businessperson who has been asked has said that they think laws like these are awful ideas. Instead, Indiana’s RFRA was championed by professional discriminators at hate groups such as the American Family Association, Indiana Family Institute and Advance America to make sure that amateur discriminators can be jerks to their fellow citizens with the law, to say nothing of God, on their side.

That’s why, when pressed over and over again by Stephanopoulos on the simple question of whether or not Indiana’s RFRA legalized discrimination based on sexual orientation, Mike Pence repeatedly refused to answer. He can’t say with a straight face that the law doesn’t allow for “straights-only” discrimination because that’s exactly what it does.

Being tolerant doesn’t mean putting up with intolerance

As I noted last week, religious conservatives are responding to the steady encroachment of equality by attempting to carve out their own status as a protected class — one defined by a “right to discriminate.” Under this formulation, those who aren’t comfortable with conservatives exercising this right — one that’s literally God-mandated, not just God-given — are the real bigots, making conservatives the real persecuted minority.

This is why Indiana’s bill is titled the way it is. The Religious Freedom “Restoration” Act implies that religious freedom is so badly damaged in this country that it needs to be “restored.”

Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth. America is more religiously diverse than it ever has been, and it’s also more tolerant. That 44% of Americans have either left or switched denominations within the faith of their upbringing is an expression of exactly how free religion is in this country, as opposed to previous decades.

So it’s patently ridiculous to say that religious freedom is somehow under threat in America. What isn’t so ridiculous, however, is the idea that Mike Pence’s brand of right-wing Christian supremacy is. The more diverse America has become, the less patience it has held for those who claim that their group should have extra — not equal — rights relative to others.

This wave of “right to discriminate” bills are nothing more than theocons grasping at legislative straws in an attempt to re-legitimize their belief that they can and should be higher in the political and cultural hierarchy than anyone the Bible says is icky. No matter how you dress that belief up, the Constitution says it doesn’t fly.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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