Pence’s struggles illustrate gay rights challenge facing GOP

Indiana religious freedom law darlington 01
Governor defends Indiana's 'religious freedom' law
02:29 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence got five cracks at answering the question that has triggered intense backlash against his state’s new “religious freedom” law.

The law allows individuals to assert in court that state laws and local ordinances violate their religious beliefs. That, opponents fret, could put LGBT Hoosiers at increased risk of discrimination.

ABC host George Stephanopoulos said all he wanted Sunday was a yes or a no: “Do you think it should be legal in the state of Indiana to discriminate against gays or lesbians?”

READ: Pence says Indiana is ‘not going to change’ law

Each time, the Republican governor and potential 2016 White House contender deflected. He criticized the “avalanche of intolerance” that’s come Indiana’s way. He complained of a “tremendous amount of misinformation and misunderstanding.” He said critics are “trying to make it about one particular issue” – gay rights – when “this is about protecting the religious liberty of people of faith and families of faith.”

Ultimately, Pence offered a defense for religious people who’ve been stung by the outrage, saying: “Tolerance is a two-way street.”

His struggle illustrated the difficulties Republicans could face headed into the 2016 election – pulled between a base that supports “religious freedom” bills like Indiana’s and the broader electorate – in a country increasingly intolerant of politicians who oppose gay rights.

And it highlights the potential for a rift the issue poses for Republicans torn between social conservatives whose support they need and Big Business, a traditional big-money constituency that has broken in a big way with the party when GOP-led statehouses have advanced measures perceived as anti-LGBT.

On Sunday, Pence seemed puzzled that Indiana’s new law has become so controversial when the federal government and 18 other state legislatures had adopted similar ones over the last 20 years.

SEE: Indiana’s religious freedom law: What you need to know

Indiana’s situation is different. Unlike other states like Illinois, where then-state Sen. Barack Obama supported a similar measure, it doesn’t also have a law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. And while the debates in those states were typically focused on ensuring the rights of minority groups, Indiana’s push was driven by social conservatives who’d just lost a bid to amend a ban on same-sex marriage into the state’s constitution a year earlier.

But the bigger difference is the sea change in voter attitudes toward gay rights – and the reality that many, starting in Indiana, have come to view the push for “religious freedom” bills as a coded rebellion against a flood of legislative actions and judicial decisions legalizing same-sex marriage, with the biggest one yet, from the Supreme Court, expected in June.

“It is hard to imagine how quickly this issue has moved,” former Republican congressman and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“In 2004, Republicans won states because of anti-gay marriage initiatives across the country. And it was part of Karl Rove’s strategy,” he said, referring to then-President George W. Bush’s top political aide.

Pence, political operatives noted Sunday, offered an example of what not to do.

Republican pollster Christine Matthews tweeted: “Generally speaking, if you try to fix a big PR mess by going on national media – you should have a plan that makes it better.”

The issue isn’t going away, with the Supreme Court’s ruling coming soon.

A similar law is working its way toward the desk of Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas, who has said he plans to ignore similar cries from businesses – including home-state Walmart – and sign it into law.

Georgia’s legislature appears to have scuttled a “religious freedom” bill there. But on the same day Pence signed Indiana’s into law, three North Carolina senators introduced one of their own.

At least a dozen states are currently considering “religious freedom” measures during their legislative sessions this year, all but guaranteeing that the debate that drew 3,000 protesters to the Indiana Statehouse on Saturday will continue.

Already, some Republicans who are expected to run for president in 2016 have weighed in on the “religious freedom” issue – though not directly on Indiana’s new law.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, known for waging tough fights of his own against labor unions in a blue-leaning state, supports the principle of the measures, his spokeswoman said Sunday.

“As a matter of principle, Gov. Walker believes in broad religious freedom and the right for Americans to exercise their religion and act on their conscience,” AshLee Strong, the press secretary for Walker’s Our American Revival political action committee, said.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – who will be in San Francisco for a fundraiser on Thursday, where the tech companies that have led the backlash against Indiana’s law could press him on the issue – addressed Georgia’s bill during a mid-March visit to the state.

“I don’t know about this law, but religious freedom is a serious issue and is increasingly so,” Bush said then. “People that act on their conscience shouldn’t be discriminated against, for sure. There should be protections.”

In 2013, as states picked up the tempo of legalizing same-sex marriage, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, cosponsored a bill that would prevent the federal government from denying any group its tax-exempt status for exercising the group’s religious conscience.

Last year Cruz said: “I’m perfectly willing to interact with anyone. But I don’t think the law should be forcing Americans to violate their religious faith.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said in an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last year that Arizona’s bill was a mixed bag.

“Well, I don’t believe that gay Americans should be denied services at a restaurant or a hotel or anything of that nature,” he said then. “I also don’t believe, however, that a caterer or a photographer should be punished by the state for refusing to provide services for a gay wedding because of their religious-held beliefs. So we’ve got to figure out a way to protect that as well.”

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said in 2014, as Arizona was considering a similar law – with major backlash then, too, which led Republican Gov. Jan Brewer to veto the measure – that the marketplace ultimately works to prevent discrimination.

“I think that the right to associate and the right to be free in your business decisions is out there,” he said then.

But Paul added: “I’m not real excited about laws that sort of say you can deny people service.”