Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. (Patrick Kane/AP)

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is putting out the welcome mat for Indiana business leaders who might be troubled by that state’s new “religious freedom” law, which opponents say in effect legalizes anti-gay discrimination.

In a letter submitted Monday to the editor of the Indianapolis Star, McAuliffe (D) makes a pitch for relocating to “open and welcoming” Virginia. He ticks off the commonwealth’s traditional business-friendly assets — ranging from low taxes to the “deepest seaport on the East Coast” — and suggests that the Old Dominion’s gay rights climate should be part of the draw.

“In Virginia, we do not discriminate against our friends and neighbors, particularly those who are supporting local businesses and generating economic activity,” he writes.

The gesture came as the Star reported Monday that leaders in Indiana’s General Assembly were trying to calm a backlash by looking for ways to clarify the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed into law Thursday. Supporters say the law is needed to protect businesses, such as wedding photographers, from being forced to provide services for same-sex marriages if they oppose such unions on religious grounds.

McAuliffe has made economic development a priority for his administration, and he has often cast his efforts to expand gay rights and abortion rights as part of that broader job-creation goal. But his sales pitch to Hoosiers is interesting in part because Virginia is not widely considered to be gay-friendly territory, despite McAuliffe’s efforts to push the state in that direction.

As McAuliffe notes in his letter, his first act after taking the oath of office in January 2014 was to sign an executive order protecting state employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation. But the Republican-controlled General Assembly has been unwilling to outlaw anti-gay discrimination more broadly.

State lawmakers also rejected efforts this year to recognize same-sex marriage in the state code, even though it was legalized in the state in October, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up an appeals court case declaring the commonwealth’s ban unconstitutional.

Legislators also acted quickly this year when they learned that deep inside a bill to legalize phone-based car services such as Uber and Lyft, there lurked language meant to prohibit drivers from discriminating against gay or transgender riders. They stripped it out.

McAuliffe’s letter to the Star drew objections from Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, a group with sizeable sway in the Capitol. She sought to use his rosy portrayal of Virginia’s gay rights status as proof that there is no need to enshrine special protections in state law.

“It’s good to see that the Governor has conceded that Virginia does not need to elevate sexual behavior to a protected class in order to be an inclusive state, but it’s unfortunate that he has joined the parade of those who are distorting the true effect of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts,” she said in an e-mail.
Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), Virginia’s first openly gay state senator, said he watched Pence on national television last weekend, “talking about their famous Hoosier hospitality in one breath, and in the next, defending their law, which I find reprehensible.”

“It’s clear that our governor is working on building a welcoming environment for everyone, doing all that he can,” Ebbin said. “There’s no question there are a lot of ways we can improve, but I sure like what our governor’s saying more than what their governor’s saying.”