By Stephanie Wang, Chelsea Schneider and Brian Eason
Taking a hard conservative line in Tuesday night's State of the State address, Gov. Mike Pence sided with shielding religious rights in the contentious statewide debate over whether to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers from discrimination.
"I will not support any bill that diminishes the religious freedom of Hoosiers or that interferes with the constitutional rights of our citizens to live out their beliefs in worship, service or work," Pence said.
With his re-election bid looming, the Republican governor cemented his conservative credentials in the speech, also chiding President Barack Obama on gun rights and rejecting proposed tax increases for road improvements.
He touted an economically strong Indiana as the state approaches its bicentennial, praised Indiana's National Guard and lauded his HIP 2.0 Medicaid expansion. Pence also called for growing regional economic development, pausing school accountability and cracking down on drug dealers.
In the debate over LGBT rights, Pence stuck to his historically social conservative stance, delivering stern reminders to state lawmakers to heed the religious freedom protections written into the state's Constitution.
He asserted that Indiana is already "an open and welcoming state that respects everyone" and said he believes "that no one should be harassed or mistreated because of who they are, who they love, or what they believe."
"And," he added later, "no one should ever fear persecution because of their deeply held religious beliefs."
"The issues confronting our state are complex," Pence said, "but I believe if we will hew to our roots, stand firm on the freedoms bequeathed to us by our founders, if we confront the challenges before us with common sense and craft Indiana solutions to improve the lives of Hoosiers, we will move forward together."
Pence's statement on religious freedom was made, in part, to reclaim support from religious Hoosiers, political analysts say.
"He has chosen his side -- the religious extremists. The people who really do not believe that gay and lesbian Hoosiers should be entitled to equal rights. And he is certainly entitled to do that, but I think politically it was suicide," said Sheila Suess Kennedy, a professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and former director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union.
Paul Helmke, a former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne and now an Indiana University professor, said Pence was "trying to have it both ways."
"He clearly sides with the evangelical side of the issue, but I think he left the door open a little," Helmke said. "I think it does put the business community on notice that he's leaning more the other way, but there's still possibly a chance they can get something through."
The way Pence handled the issue also sends a message that lawmakers will need to do the lifting, if anything is going to pass to his desk.
"He didn't give any sort of indication he's eager to sign a civil rights bill and that means it's back to the legislature, and we'll see what they do. Boy, when a governor sends a signal he's not favorably disposed to changing the law, it doesn't seem to suggest that the Republican supermajority is going to go through a lot of exertion to pass a bill with an uncertain future," said Robert Dion, an University of Evansville professor.
Still, it remains unclear whether Pence would support any kind of legislation extending LGBT rights that lawmakers may hash out. Many conservative groups have said giving protected-class status based on sexual orientation or gender identity would elevate LGBT rights above religious rights, infringing on people's ability to live by their beliefs.
Republican leaders in the Senate have already promised debate over adding anti-discrimination protections for LGBT Hoosiers, with several proposals already on the table. Among those proposals: a bill to extend civil rights based on sexual orientation and gender identity, with some new carve-outs for religious objectors, and another that would grant rights to gay Hoosiers but not transgender people.
Pence said lawmakers will have to decide "whether it is necessary or even possible" to balance LGBT rights and religious freedom.
Republican Statehouse leaders said Pence gave them the clearest guidance he has yet on the issue.
"I thought he was more clear on the religious freedom element than I've heard him say before," said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis. "He set some very clear parameters in that regard."
Senate President Pro Tempore David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said he took Pence's comments as a threat to veto any bill that didn't include protections for religious beliefs. But Long added that he didn't believe that would present a problem for the bills now being debated.
"The two Senate Republican bills do deal strongly with religious freedom as well as civil rights," he said.
Conservatives seemed heartened by Pence's speech.
"I think he's calling for a 'live and let live' society," said Jim Bopp, a conservative attorney from Terre Haute. "The ultimate act of intolerance is making someone do something that violates their conscience. Unfortunately there seems to be an aspect to the gay rights movement that is intolerant, that wants to force people to do things that violate their core religious beliefs."
Ron Johnson Jr., executive director of the Indiana Pastors Alliance, said Pence made a "pretty strong statement."
As Johnson sees it, laws that protect LBGT rights would mean "people's religious beliefs, and in particular here Christianity and Christian beliefs, become criminalized, because if you believe what the Bible says about sexuality, you are now a bigot. That's what the law tells you -- that it is a terrible thing for people of faith who simply respectfully disagree with the LGBT community."
But, on the other side, Pence's critics immediately denounced his stance. LGBT rights advocacy group Freedom Indiana said in a statement: "This is a complete letdown."
In the Indianapolis Artsgarden, a crowd of about 100 LGBT rights supporters with Freedom Indiana who gathered to watch the televised speech expressed disappointment but said they weren't surprised by Pence's comments.
"Leadership starts at the top, and there's not been leadership anywhere," said Samantha Buente, 30, of Evansville.
James Freeman, a 27-year-old veteran from Indianapolis who is gay, said Pence's comments that people should not be harassed because of who they love were "sugarcoating" for a speech that emphasized religious freedom.
"While that sounds nice, don't mistake the real meaning of what he said," Freeman said, adding that "religious belief is not a synonym for discrimination."
At the watch party, the final words of Pence's speech were drowned out by a chant of "Pence must go!"
The Indiana Democratic Party called Pence "delusional."
"Mike Pence doesn't 'abhor discrimination' -- he actively promotes it," party spokesman Drew Anderson said in a statement.
Business interests advocating for civil rights protections for LGBT Hoosiers said they were disappointed in Pence.
"He had an opportunity to lead our state and call for decisive action to show that Indiana is a welcoming state, but his rhetoric indicates he is willing to let Indiana be a state that welcomes most, not all," said Peter Hanscom, initiative manager for the business coalition Indiana Competes. "While Governor Pence emphasized tonight that Hoosiers should not be harassed or mistreated, he said nothing about condemning Hoosiers being fired, removed from their home or denied public service because of who they are."
Pence's speech followed a politically difficult year in which fallout from Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act saw him take heat on national TV as he defended the controversial law. The intense scrutiny on RFRA and its subsequent "fix" brought LGBT rights to the forefront of state policymaking discussions, but Pence remained publicly silent on the issue until Tuesday.
His staff said for months Pence has been listening to all sides of the debate. Conservatives, LGBT advocates, the business community and others have been pressuring him to take action, whether to further shield religious rights, fully protect LGBT rights or find some resolution to achieve a balance between the two.
(c)2016 The Indianapolis Star