In his State of the State address Tuesday night, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence appeared less interested in protecting LGBT Hoosiers from discrimination than protecting those with antigay religious beliefs.
As Indiana lawmakers discuss whether to adopt LGBT-inclusive protections, Pence said, “I will not support any bill that diminishes the religious freedom of Hoosiers or that interferes with the constitutional rights of our citizens to live out their beliefs in worship, service or work,” The Indianapolis Star reports.
Pence, a conservative Republican, said Indiana is already “an open and welcoming state that respects everyone” and he believes “that no one should be harassed or mistreated because of who they are, who they love, or what they believe.” But he added, “No one should ever fear persecution because of their deeply held religious beliefs.”
Indiana has been a site of debate over LGBT rights and religious freedom since last year’s enactment of its Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which opponents said would provide businesses and individuals a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people — for instance, same-sex couples seeking goods and services for their weddings. After a national outcry against the act, Pence signed a “fix” to it aimed at assuring it would not be used to discriminate and would not supersede local laws than ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The debate underscored, though, that Indiana has no such ban statewide, and both activists and business interests have called on the state to adopt one. While two Republican-backed antidiscrimination bills have been introduced in the current legislative session, neither one has given LGBT residents and their allies cause for celebration. One would ban discrimination based on both characteristics but allow nonprofits and even some for-profit small businesses to avoid penalties for discrimination by citing faith-based objections to accommodating LGBT people. Another would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation but not gender identity.
And Pence’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for LGBT protections may not bode well for any legislation. “He didn’t give any sort of indication he’s eager to sign a civil rights bill and that means it’s back to the legislature, and we’ll see what they do,” University of Evansville professor Robert Dion told the Star. “Boy, when a governor sends a signal he’s not favorably disposed to changing the law, it doesn’t seem to suggest that the Republican supermajority is going to go through a lot of exertion to pass a bill with an uncertain future.”
“He has chosen his side — the religious extremists,” added Sheila Suess Kennedy, a professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and former director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, in an interview with the paper. “The people who really do not believe that gay and lesbian Hoosiers should be entitled to equal rights. And he is certainly entitled to do that, but I think politically it was suicide.”
LGBT rights group Freedom Indiana issued a statement calling Pence’s speech “a complete letdown.” And attendees at an Indianapolis watch party organized by the group were disappointed as well.
“Leadership starts at the top, and there’s not been leadership anywhere,” one of them, Samantha Buente of Evansville, told the Star.
The watch party ended, the Star reports, with the crowd of about 100 chanting “Pence must go!
Watch Governor Mike Pence's State of the State address below, courtesy the Star.