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Indiana Gov. Mike Pence defends religious freedom law in op-ed

Embattled Indiana Gov. Mike Pence doubled down on his state's controversial religious freedom law with a strongly-worded op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.

Embattled Indiana Gov. Mike Pence doubled down on his state's controversial religious freedom law Monday with a strongly-worded op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.

"I want to make clear to Hoosiers and every American that despite what critics and many in the national media have asserted, the law is not a 'license to discriminate,' either in Indiana or elsewhere," Pence says in the piece, adding, "I abhor discrimination. I believe in the Golden Rule that you should 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' If I saw a restaurant owner refuse to serve a gay couple, I wouldn't eat there anymore."

But despite Pence's assertions to the contrary, several legal experts maintain that the law in question -- despite its purported intentions -- will allow individuals, organizations and businesses to cite "religious beliefs" as a defense against discrimination lawsuits.

Indiana lawmakers, for their part, appeared divided Monday over how to address the growing backlash against the newly signed religious freedom measure.

In back-to-back press conferences Monday morning, Republican and Democratic leaders presented conflicting analyses over what Senate Bill 101 -- otherwise known as the state Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) -- would actually do, and conflicting plans over how to ensure that the measure would not allow for discrimination.

Indiana’s state Sen. David Long and House Speaker Brian Bosma, both Republicans, said they would work to pass legislative clarification indicating that the law could not be used to discriminate against anyone. Meanwhile, state Sen. Tim Lanane and state Rep. Scott Pelath, both Democrats, argued that the measure was beyond fixing and required a full repeal.

RELATED: Pence defends religious freedom law: 'Absolutely not' a mistake

“I was very disappointed by what I heard [from the Republican leaders] because I did not hear a plan about how we are going to fix this terrible situation,” Lanane told reporters Monday. “Unfortunately it’s apparent to me that the Republicans still think this is a good idea, that this is a good law.”

“They’re going through the stages of grief right now, and they’re stuck in the denial phase,” added Democratic state Rep. Pelath. “They have no sense of how big of problem this is.”

Since it quietly became law Thursday in a private, closed-press signing ceremony, Indiana’s RFRA has been the target of intense criticism from celebrities, politicians, tech leaders, and organizations responsible for funneling millions into the state’s economy.  On Sunday, Apple CEO Tim Cook, who is openly gay, penned an opinion piece for The Washington Post, in which he called the wave of religious freedom measures currently surfacing in state legislatures across the country “something very dangerous.” Similarly, Star Trek star George Takei wrote his own op-ed calling for a boycott of Indiana “to help stop the further erosion of our core civil values.” Ex-NBA stars are also putting pressure on the NCAA to pull out of Indianapolis for the Final Four, set to take place next week. And Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy announced on Monday that he would sign an executive order halting state-sponsored travel to Indiana over the legislation.

"When new laws turn back the clock on progress, we can't sit idly by," Malloy tweeted. "We are sending a message that discrimination won't be tolerated."

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."

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard signed an executive order Monday requesting that the city be exempt from the religious freedom law. The executive order also reaffirms that "no vendor, contractor, grant recipient or anyone receiving public funds or benefits of any kind shall discriminate on the basis of race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, ancestry, age, or United States military service veteran status, and any breach of this policy shall continue to be considered a material breach of the relationship with the City." The mayor has asked Pence and the Indiana General Assembly to "expressly add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in state law."

Pence has remained defiant in the face of mounting criticism. In an interview on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday, Pence defended his decision to sign the RFRA into law last week, saying that the measure was “about protecting the religious liberty of people of faith and families of faith.” He repeatedly dodged the question of whether the law could be used to deny service to LGBT people.

Pence has found allies in potential 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who hailed the governor's position on Monday. "Governor Pence is holding the line to protect religious liberty in the Hoosier State. Indiana is giving voice to millions of courageous conservatives across this country who are deeply concerned about the ongoing attacks upon our personal liberties. I’m proud to stand with Mike, and I urge Americans to do the same," Cruz said in a written statement.

Republican lawmakers Long and Bosma largely reiterated the governor’s position Monday, though said additional legislative language was needed to clarify the “misconception” that the RFRA allows for the denial of service on religious grounds.

"What we’re looking at right now is specific clarity to remove the misconception that the RFRA allows the denial of services to any Hoosier. It doesn’t do that,” said House Speaker Bosma. “There are those who say — on both sides now — who say it has the potential to do that. There are some who say it absolutely does do that. It’s our intent to clarify that it does not.”

State Sen. Long, meanwhile, defended the RFRA on the grounds that it was modeled after a federal law that’s been on the books since the Clinton administration. Nineteen other states have enacted similar measures.

“At no time in the history of this law has it ever been allowed to discriminate against anyone,” Long said.

But LGBT and civil liberties advocates disagree with that analysis, saying that the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision -- which found that closely-held corporations wouldn’t have to cover the cost of birth control in line with the Affordable Care Act if the owners had a sincerely-held religious objection to contraception -- completely redefined the scope of the federal RFRA, and made it so that state versions could be used to get out of complying with nondiscrimination ordinances and marriage equality laws. Since the federal RFRA was introduced in the early 1990’s, many of the law’s initial backers have grown furious over its use as a license to foist one’s religious beliefs on someone else, rather than as a protective measure against government interference in one’s religious beliefs.

Bosma and Long said they were not likely to pass legislative clarification on the use of RFRA Monday. “We’ve got some work to do,” Bosma said. He also added that lawmakers were likely not going to change Indiana’s Civil Rights Act to include LGBT protections, as that involves too great of a policy change to tackle this close to the end of the legislative session.