Indiana governor won’t say whether businesses can refuse gay customers

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence at a news conference in Indianapolis.
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

It’s a simple question -- but also one of the most contentious in Indiana, which is under siege by LGBT activists urging a boycott of the state.

Can Indiana business owners legally refuse to serve gay and lesbian customers if homosexuality is forbidden by their religious beliefs?

During an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence wouldn’t say.

Host George Stephanopoulos repeatedly asked the Republican governor, yes or no, whether the state’s newly passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act would allow a scenario in which “a florist in Indiana can now refuse to serve a gay couple without fear of punishment.”

Each time, Pence did not answer with yes or no.

Here’s one such exchange from a transcript of the show:

STEPHANOPOULOS: So yes or no, if a florist in Indiana refuses to serve a gay couple at their wedding, is that legal now in Indiana?


PENCE: George, this is -- this is where this debate has gone, with -- with misinformation and frankly ...

STEPHANOPOULOS: It’s just a question, sir. Question, sir. Yes or no?

PENCE: Well -- well, this -- there’s been shameless rhetoric about my state and about this law and about its intention all over the Internet. People are trying to make it about one particular issue. And now you’re doing that as well.

Later Sunday, when asked for clarification by the Los Angeles Times, a spokeswoman for Pence’s office also did not use yes or no.

“As Gov. Pence has clearly stated, this bill is not about discrimination and does not in any way legalize discrimination in Indiana,” spokeswoman Kara Brooks said in an email. “For more than 20 years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act” -- which was passed during the Clinton administration -- “has never undermined our nation’s anti-discrimination laws, and this law will not do so in Indiana either.”

In Pence’s interview with Stephanopoulos, the governor said he was not going to alter the new law.

“Look, we’re not going to change the law, OK?” said Pence, who had alluded to being open to a legislative change in an interview with the Indianapolis Star on Saturday. “But if the general assembly in Indiana sends me a bill that adds a section that reiterates and amplifies and clarifies what the law really is ... then I’m open to that.”

The governor’s spokeswoman hinted that the Legislature may be working on such a clarification.

“Legislators are drafting the language,” Brooks told The Times, without elaboration. “I don’t have any language to share with you at this time.”

Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which has triggered a maelstrom of criticism among LGBT activists, does not give an explicit answer on whether religious business owners can deny service to gay or lesbian customers.

Like the viral image of the optical-illusion dress that some people see as gold and others see as blue, conservatives and liberals seem to be referring to two separate things when discussing Indiana’s new law.

Conservatives say the law is about empowering religious rights. Liberals say the law will enable discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Several states, including Alabama and Idaho, have similar laws.

Indiana’s law generally “prohibits a governmental entity from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion” unless the government can prove it has a compelling interest and that such a burden is “the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling governmental interest.”

In plainer words, the law generally strengthens religion-based arguments in court. Its text doesn’t specifically target -- or even mention -- gays and lesbians and sexual orientation.

But the law’s breadth and general legal implications have LGBT activists and supporters concerned that it could protect business owners who might decline to serve gays or lesbians. (The Indianapolis Star has a good explainer on the legal issues in the bill.)

Under federal law, discrimination based on race, color, sex, age, religion, national origin and various other classifications is illegal. Businesses can’t turn someone away just because he or she is black, for instance.

Sexual orientation is not included under that federal blanket protection, and Indiana has no statewide law that establishes gays and lesbians as similarly protected groups.

“One fix that people have talked about is simply adding sexual orientation as a protected class under the state’s civil rights laws,” Stephanopoulos asked. “Will you push for that?”

“I will not push for that,” Pence replied. “That’s not on my agenda and that’s not been the -- that’s not been an objective of the people of the state of Indiana.”

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