The state of Indiana on Thursday passed into law a controversial "religious freedom" bill aimed at same-sex couples. It was signed by Gov. Mike Pence in a private ceremony.
According to Tony Cook of Indianapolis Star, the new measure, known as Senate Bill 101 or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, could allow business owners to refuse services to same-sex couples. The governor defended the passage of the law in a press conference shortly after he signed it.
"Today I signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, because I support the freedom of religion for every Hoosier of every faith," Pence said in a statement. "The Constitution of the United States and the Indiana Constitution both provide strong recognition of the freedom of religion but today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action."
Pence emphasized that the new measure "has never undermined anti-discrimination laws."
"This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it," Pence said. "In fact, it does not even apply to disputes between private parties unless government action is involved. For more than 20 years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation's anti-discrimination laws, and it will not in Indiana."
Emma Margolin of MSNBC elaborated on how the new law would work in Indiana.
"The new law will prohibit a governmental entity from substantially burdening a person's religious beliefs, unless that entity can prove it's relying on the least restrictive means possible to further a compelling governmental interest," Margolin wrote. "It's modeled off of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which gained notoriety in the Supreme Court's controversial Hobby Lobby ruling last year. That decision found that closely-held corporations wouldn't have to comply with the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate if the owners had a sincerely-held religious objection to birth control."
According to Cook, opponents of the law argued that it would legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians. However, supporters indicated that such a law was needed to protect people with strong religious beliefs from government overreach.
Cook added that Indiana Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, a Democrat, condemned the governor and the Republican-led legislature for passing the controversial bill.
"Although not unexpected, it is still extremely disappointing that Gov. Pence endorses this out-of-touch, discriminatory legislation," Lanane said in a statement. "Not only is this law unnecessary, it unfortunately has already portrayed our state as intolerant, unfriendly, and backwards; things which I believe most Hoosiers reject."
Brooke Tucker of the American Civil Liberties Union talked to MSNBC back in December about the law's potential effects. She made her comments when Michigan unsuccessfully tried to pass a similar law.
"One of the ways that anti-discrimination laws work is that you have government agencies going after the people accused of discrimination. In that case, it would be a 'government action,'" Tucker said. "The government takes a lot of steps to protect people from discrimination by others, and that's something that could be severely impacted by this bill."
Despite those concerns, Cook reported that about 75 to 80 people attended the private signing ceremony held by Pence. The event was closed to both the public and the press, and the governor's office has declined to identify the people present in the official photo of the ceremony.
"It was a very crowded room," Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana, said. "They said it may have been one of the biggest bill signings they ever had."