Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) and state Republican leaders have been playing damage control this week, claiming that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is not a law that enables anti-LGBT discrimination. Meanwhile, however, the conservatives who advocated for the bill have been spurning this attempted walkback, asserting in the process that the goal was ensuring discrimination all along.
At the forefront of the conservative reaction is Micah Clark, who serves as executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana and who stood right behind Pence as he signed the bill. Speaking Monday to Tim Wildmon, head of the national American Family Association, Clark explained that conservatives should oppose any effort to clarify that the law does not legalize discrimination. “That could totally destroy this bill,” he explained.
Clark has been publicly advocating for the bill as a means for allowing anti-LGBT discrimination since December, long before the legislation was even drafted. This directly contradicts the claims made Monday by House Speaker Brian Bosma (R) and Senate President Pro Tem David Long (R) that the legislation never had anything to do with discrimination.
Eric Miller, Executive Director of Advance America, is another anti-LGBT activist who stood by Pence as he signed the bill. Advance America praised Pence for signing the bill last week, openly stating that it would allow wedding vendors to refuse to serve same-sex couples and allow Christian businesses to refuse transgender people access to restrooms. Miller was quoted as saying, “It is vitally important to protect religious freedom in Indiana. It’s the right thing to do. It was therefore important to pass Senate Bill 101 in 2015 in order to help protect churches, Christian businesses and individuals from those who want to punish them because of their Biblical beliefs!” Pence and Miller, it turns out, go way back.
On the national stage, conservatives are similarly defending the RFRA and arguing it needs no fixing. Andrew Walker, Director of Policy Studies for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, perhaps best summed up the distortion conservatives are using to argue that it’s not discriminatory:
A wedding vendor who chooses not to service a same-sex wedding is not discriminating against a person’s being. Instead, the vendor believes that material cooperation in a particular event encroaches on his conscience… To give relief to a particular wedding vendor who feels uncomfortable servicing a gay wedding isn’t in any way comparable to state-sponsored discrimination… To require a wedding vendor to service a same-sex wedding is not eliminating discrimination against the gay couple. It’s coercing the wedding vendor.
Walker is simultaneously admitting that the law is designed to allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT people while denying that it’s actually “discrimination” that’s taking place. Radio host Bryan Fischer, formerly of the American Family Association, took the Christian self-victimization a step further. “This law is not something that provides for discrimination against gays,” he explained. “It is something that prevents discrimination against Christians… This thing is an anti-discrimination bill because it prohibits governmental discrimination against Christians in the state of Indiana.”
The Heritage Institute’s Ryan T. Anderson used this messaging to try to take on Apple CEO Tim Cook, who wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post this week calling these so-called “religious freedom” laws dangerous. According to Anderson, “the only person in favor of discrimination in this debate is Tim Cook.” As one of his examples, Anderson claims, “It is Tim Cook who would have the government discriminate against these citizens, have the government coerce them into helping to celebrate a same-sex wedding and penalize them if they try to lead their lives in accordance with their faith.”
Using as his example Washington florist Barronelle Stutzman — who was fined last week for refusing to serve a same-sex couple — Anderson reiterates the distortion: “This debate has nothing to do with refusing to serve gays simply because they’re gay, and this law wouldn’t protect that. But should the government force a 70-year-old grandmother to violate her beliefs? Should the government coerce her into helping to celebrate a same-sex wedding?” Anderson later highlights Aaron and Melissa Klein, bakery owners who also face fines for refusing service to a same-sex couple, as somehow another example of how RFRA is not about discrimination. He echoed these talking points on MSNBC last night as well, offering the caveat that nothing guarantees a vendor will win if they defend their discrimination with RFRA.
The Family Research Council has been making the media rounds as well. In addition to defending Pence and the law on their website, both Tony Perkins and Peter Sprigg have taken to cable news this week to defend their positions. Sprigg went toe-to-toe with CNN’s Chris Cuomo Monday morning, where he acknowledged that wedding vendors trying to discriminate could use the law to defend themselves, but like Anderson, he tried to couch that in the idea that they wouldn’t necessarily win. The only thing these Christian wedding vendors object to, Sprigg suggested, “is using their expressive abilities to communicate a message that they disagree with by saying that marriage can be a union of two men or two women,” adding that it’s “forcing them to do something that violates their faith.”
On Fox News Monday night, Perkins continued to falsely conflate Indiana’s RFRA with laws by the same name in other states, adding, “Let’s be very clear what RFRA is. This is a shield to protect one’s belief from government. It is not a sword to be used against anyone else and it cannot be… This is only a defense and it is not an iron-clad defense at that.” Perkins went on to describe the notion that some people want to “force people to engage in a behavior such as weddings — photographers, florists. In a civil society, what we would say is, ‘Oh, you don’t want to service me? Fine, I’ll go next store. I’ll go down the street.’” Borrowing a rather mockable talking point from Mike Huckabee, he added, “Who would fathom the idea of someone going into a Kosher deli and demanding a ham sandwich?”
Despite conservatives all asserting that RFRA is designed to allow businesses to refuse to offer products and services to same-sex couples that they offer to others, Pence continued to defend the law as not being discriminatory in a Wall Street Journal op-ed posted Monday evening. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s The Onion that has one of the most accurate headlines this week: “Indiana Governor Insists New Law Has Nothing To Do With Thing It Explicitly Intended To Do.”