By BRIAN A. HOWEY
INDIANAPOLIS - Facing on onslaught of criticism from the business community and an unprecedented national disparagement of the state, Gov. Mike Pence attempted to make a case for the legitimacy of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act Sunday on national TV, but when pressed could not declare that gays and lesbians wouldn’t be the target of sanctioned discrimination.
It comes after an unprecedented array corporate executives, mayors, the NCAA and celebrities castigated the new law that Pence signed on Thursday in a private ceremony. The controversy comes on the eve of the national media descending into Indianapolis for the NCAA Men’s Final Four, with media personalities ranging from local hero Reggie Miller, to ESPN commentator Dick Vitale, to Charles Barkley of CBS denouncing the new law. And it ignited a potential fissure in the Indiana Republican Party, with Howard County Chairman Craig Dunn questioning Pence’s own viability for reelection in 2016 is now in question.
Pence went on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday morning to defend Indiana’s Religious Freedom Information Act, but refused to answer a “yes or no” question from host George Stephanopoulos on whether it allows for discrimination against gays. Asked six times whether the law permits discrimination, the governor repeatedly deflected. Pence said at one point, ”This is not about discrimination, this is about empowering people to confront government overreach.” Pence noted that President Clinton signed the federal law in 1993 and Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama voted for that law in 1998. He called “misinformation” projected by the media as “shameful and reckless” and the controversy is a “red herring.”
"The Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been on the books for more than 20 years,” Pence said. “It does not apply, George, to disputes between individuals unless government action is involved, and in point of fact, in more than two decades, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never been used to undermine anti-discrimination laws in this country."
Howard County GOP Chairman Dunn says that Republicans he’s talked with since the firestorm surfaced and spread “are sick to their stomachs, as I am.”
“It’s an embarrassment and it sets us back,” Dunn told HPI. “All the good things (Gov.) Mitch Daniels accomplished, bringing in all the young people to the party, is now buried by one single bill.” Dunn and other members of the Indiana Republican Central Committee took part in a heated debate on the RFRA and other issues at recent meetings, saying the issues weren’t in the 2012 and 2014 Republican Party platforms. Dunn questioned why legislative leaders gave the RFRA the “Senate Bill 1” designation usually reserved for top priority legislation. Dunn’s remarks come just days before the Indiana Republican Central Committee will vote on Jeff Cardwell, Pence’s designee for Republican chairman.