Indiana Governor to Critics of Religious Freedom Bill: Is tolerance a two-way street or not?

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence appears March 29 on ABC's This Week.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence appears March 29 on ABC's This Week. (photo:

On ABC’s This Week on Sunday, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence pushed back against critics of his state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, said to be one of 20 plus such law passed in the country, with language similar to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

"In more than two decades, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never been used to undermine the laws protecting discrimination in our country," said Pence. He noted he was open to inserting language clarifying the intent of the law.

“The issue here is, you know: Is tolerance a two-way street or not?” asked Pence. "There is a lot of talk about tolerance in this country with people on the left," he added, and he seemed to suggest that critics of the law were not showing the same tolerance to people of faith.

While the ABC host, George Stephanopoulos, continued to ask Pence whether the law would permit discrimination, the governor argued that the television host should move beyond the talking points of critics and look at the law's actual intent. 

"It is a red herring and is deeply troubling to millions of Americas ... who feel troubled about government overreach." The law, he repeated, "isn't about disputes between indidivuals; this is about government overreach."

He noted that the state law was based on the federal RFRA, "which had never been used to argue in support of discrimination against any group."

"This is about protecting the religious liberty of people of faith and families of faith across the country," said Pence, who noted that Obamacare and the lawsuit filed by Hobby Lobby against the Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate had sparked support for state laws that bolster the free-exercise rights of religious believers.

Still, Pence was prepared to make minor adjustments.

"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 and what it has been for the last 20 years, then I'm open to that."

Republicans leaders in the state legislature have expressed surprise at the attacks on the bill. They described the law as a "message of inclusion" for all religious believers in Indiana. They are now looking at options that would clarify the intent of the law. 

Democrats in the legislature have leveraged the protests against the law to issue a demand that it be repealed and that new legislation be passed that includes sexual orientation as a protected class.  

"In Indiana, we do not condone discrimination," said a Democratic legislator. "Let's start with a full repeal of RFRA. Repeal, repeal, repeal."

A number of tech business leaders have also critiized Indiana's RFRA law as a license to discriminate. 

"I have great reverence for religious freedom. As a child, I was baptized in a Baptist church, and faith has always been an important part of my life. I was never taught, nor do I believe, that religion should be used as an excuse to discriminate," said Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, in a column in The Washington Post.

"I remember what it was like to grow up in the South in the 1960s and 1970s. Discrimination isn’t something that’s easy to oppose. It doesn’t always stare you in the face. It moves in the shadows. And sometimes it shrouds itself within the very laws meant to protect us."

Cook said Indiana's law is "dangerous," because "individuals can cite their personal religious beliefs to refuse service to a customer or resist a state nondiscrimination law."

But Cook and other critics of the law do not explain that such laws only make it possible for an individual who believes a government action or law burdens his or her religious freedom, to file suit. There is no sweeping guarantee that the plaintiff will win a suit. The court will have to evaluate the merits of the claim. 

In his ABC interview, Pence resisted efforts to pin him down on what the law would do in a specific case: a baker refusing to serve a particular client. The governor would not porvide a Yes or No response, in part, because this law has many conditions that must be fulfilled before the plaintiff can win a case.  

Indiana's law is modeled on the federal RFRA law, which directs the government to avoid enacting laws that burden religious freedom without a compelling state interest. When that interest has been established, the state must use the least restrictive means possible to advance its interest.

The question for critics of Indiana's RFRA is this: Can you explain in more detail your position on religious freedom?

What does religious freedom mean, and what takes priority over free-exercise claims, long viewed as the "first freedom" upheld by the U.S. Constitution?

We know religous freedom is not absolute; that's one reason why the federal RFRA law has several conditions that must be fulfilled. But gay rights are not absolute either, correct? We need more debate and conversation on this without calling people names.