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Gov. Mike Pence seeks to defend, 'clarify' controversial 'religious freedom' law

Indiana's governor continues to stand by his so-called "religious freedom law," which he claims isn't discriminatory against anyone.

While insisting his state's "religious freedom" law does not discriminate, Indiana's Republican Gov. Mike Pence on Tuesday buckled to pressure from gay rights groups and an array of businesses and announced he would ask lawmakers to come up with a fix for the controversial measure. 

"I do believe that moving legislation this week that would make it clear this law does not give businesses a right to deny services to anyone would be appropriate," Pence told reporters at a press conference in Indianapolis.

"This law does not give anyone a license to discriminate," he added. "It is simply a balancing test used by our federal courts and jurisdictions across the country for more than two decades." Pence mentioned former President Bill Clinton six times during his speech. In 1993, Clinton signed a federal law that the governor says mirrors the measure in Indiana.

Pence asked for the General Assembly to present clarified legislation to him by Friday.

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"We need to focus specifically on this perception that this creates some license to discriminate, and that's what I'm calling on the legislature to do," he said, adding that the measure has been "grossly mischaracterized by advocates who oppose the bill" and by "sloppy reporting" in the national media.

"This law has been smeared," he said.

Pence reportedly privately signed the contended bill last Thursday, surrounded by a group of anti-LGBT activists. He signed the measure amid intense criticism from residents, convention customers, tech leaders, and celebrities. 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. The bill was modeled off of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which gained notoriety in the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Hobby Lobby ruling last year.

After signing the bill last week, Pence said he approved the legislation because he supports "the freedom of religion for every Hoosier of every faith." Opponents warn the measure will sanction discrimination against LGBT people on religious grounds and cost the Hoosier State millions in tourism revenue. 

The law, he said on Tuesday, doesn't give businesses the right to deny services to anyone. Rather, the intent "was to give the courts in our state the highest level of scrutiny in cases where people feel that their religious liberty is being infringed upon by government action," he added.

The bill has reverberated throughout the country. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the law "flies in the face" of the values of people all across the country.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy signed an executive order on Monday to ban state-backed travel to Indiana. The next day, University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst said the school would support the ban and not send any members of its men's basketball staff to attend NCAA Final Four playoffs, which are scheduled to be played in Indiana under the shadow of the increasingly contentious civil rights fight. The NCAA, which is headquartered in the state, has publicly opposed the law, and ex-NBA players have pressured the organization to pull games out of the state. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo also on Tuesday prohibited all nonessential state-funded travel from New York to the Hoosier State, saying it shows residents stand by "our LBGT family members, friends, and colleagues."

"The reality is, the governor's not a stupid man, but he's done stupid things. Signing this law, and quite frankly promoting this law knowing exactly what it was going to do, was an incredibly stupid thing for him to do," Malloy said Tuesday on "Morning Joe."

The mayors of Seattle and San Francisco have all but barred the use of public funds to travel to Indiana. The CEO of Angie's List, an online concierge to find companies to perform various household maintenance, has halted a planned expansion to its campus in Indianapolis.

Democratic leaders from Indiana spoke out against Pence following his press conference on Tuesday, calling on him to add sexual orientation to the state's civil rights law.

"One of the things you have to do when you have a problem, a real problem, is to acknowledge it, is to face it. We're still hearing all of these excuses being put out by the governor that this is a misunderstanding," said Indiana state Sen. Timothy Lanane. The CEOs of multi-national corporations, including Apple, he added, have looked at the measure, and "they clearly see something in this bill which is very, very toxic and very, very wrong. They think this bill sends a terrible message about what's going on here in Indiana."

The Democrats also cautioned against rushing through reaching a decision on clarified details in the law this week. They would, however, accept hurried action to repeal the law.

Democratic Rep. Greg Porter of Indiana said the law brings back images of people being denied service at local restaurants because of their skin color.

"These are sad times in the state of Indiana. At a time when we should be looking forward, we find our leaders determined to take us back to a time when discrimination was the order of the day," he said.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shared her feelings about the law on Twitter:

On Tuesday, NASCAR, whose legendary Indy 500 race traditionally takes place in the state, weighed in against the law too. 

"We will not embrace nor participate in exclusion or intolerance," said NASCAR in a statement. "We are committed to diversity and inclusion within our sport and therefore will continue to welcome all competitors and fans at our events in the state of Indiana and anywhere else we race."

Nike also came out against the Indiana law Tuesday. "Nike proudly stands for inclusion for all. We believe laws should treat people equally and prevent discrimination. Nike has led efforts alongside other businesses to defeat discriminatory laws in Oregon and opposes the new law in Indiana which is bad for our employees, bad for our consumers, bad for business and bad for society as a whole. We hope Indiana will quickly resolve this," Nike President and CEO Mark Parker said in a statement to the Human Rights Campaign.

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The Indianapolis Star newspaper published an editorial late Monday calling on Pence to address the backlash. “We urge Gov. Pence and lawmakers to stop clinging to arguments about whether RFRA really does what critics fear; to stop clinging to ideology or personal preferences; to focus instead on fixing this. Governor, Indiana is in a state of crisis. It is worse than you seem to understand. You must act with courage and wisdom. You must lead us forward now. You must ensure that all Hoosiers have strong protections against discrimination.”

"There is no license to discriminate in this law," he told Fox News on Tuesday. "For my part, I abhor discrimination, like every other Hoosier. I don't think anyone should ever be mistreated because of who they are or who they love."

Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma told msnbc's Jose Diaz-Balart earlier on Tuesday morning that his state doesn't discriminate.

"We're simply going to fix the bill," he said. "[The bill] doesn't allow discrimination… mischaracterization has taken hold."

Emma Margolin contributed to this report.