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Indiana's Pence tries to defend new anti-gay measure

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) took a step backwards on civil rights today, signing a measure likely to lead to LGBT discrimination.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence pauses while speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Feb. 27, 2015 in National Harbor, Md.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence pauses while speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Feb. 27, 2015 in National Harbor, Md.
In Arizona last year, then-Gov. Jan Brewer (R) vetoed a controversial right-to-discriminate measure, ending a fight that generated national attention. The dispute was pretty straightforward -- would the state empower business owners to discriminate against LGBT customers? Facing boycott threats, Arizona backed off.
This year, Indiana did not.

Bucking intense criticism from citizens, celebrities, tech leaders, and convention customers, Indiana's Republican Gov. Mike Pence quietly signed a controversial religious freedom bill into law on Thursday. Opponents warn the measure will sanction discrimination against LGBT people, and cost the Hoosier State millions in tourism revenue. [...] 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 governor did not allow the media to witness the bill signing -- Pence completed the process behind closed doors -- though he did publish a photo from the event on Twitter. It appears the governor was surrounded by a group of religious leaders.
Time will tell how the law is implemented, and the degree to which Indiana has cleared the way for state-sanctioned discrimination, though the prospect of economic consequences are already real -- tech giant Salesforce has suggested it will avoid Indiana in the future, while organizers of Gen Con are also considering new venues.
But I was also struck by what happened when Pence was asked whether there were any real-world developments in Indiana that justified this new state law.

"I'm not aware of cases and controversies. I mean as I travel around the state one thing I know for sure -- Hoosier hospitality is the greatest in the nation. Hoosiers are loving, caring, generous to a fault," Pence said in an interview with conservative radio host Greg Garrison on Thursday. "People that have strong hearts, strong values. But this isn't about any present controversy as much as some in the media want to make it about."

Hmm. As far as the governor knows, Indiana hasn't had any problems necessitating a change in state law, so policymakers created opportunities for discrimination -- which may well lead to, in Pence's words, "cases and controversies."
Of course, the governor is rumored to be interested in the 2016 Republican presidential campaign, and Indiana isn't the only state considering right-to-discriminate measures. Paul Waldman made the case earlier today that this is likely to become a new litmus-test issue for GOP candidates.

I have no doubt that candidates like Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, or Mike Huckabee will rush to support the Indiana law. The real question is what happens with the candidates who want to get as much support as they can from conservative Christians, but also want to appeal to the more moderate voters (and funders) who may not be so pleased with these kinds of laws. Those candidates also surely know that general election voters will be much less favorably inclined toward this law, and that it could well fit into a broad theme of Republicans as intolerant, not only on issues affecting gay people but on immigration as well. If you're Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, or Jeb Bush, this could be a very tricky issue to confront.

For what it's worth, Jeb Bush has already expressed some tacit support for these kinds of measures, telling reporters last week he backs "protections" for "people of conscience" who want to discriminate.