Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed a religious liberties bill into law Thursday that has been criticized by gay rights groups as a “license to discriminate.”
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act will prevent state and local governments from imposing a “substantial burden” on a person’s free exercise of religion, unless the government can prove that there is a compelling reason to do so. It mirrors a federal law enacted in 1993, and similar statutes on the books in 19 states.
But critics say it could pave the way for open discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender people, giving business owners, landlords and others the right to refuse service to gays under the guise of religious protection.
The act is similar to a bill that came under fire last year in Arizona. The governor at the time, Jan Brewer, ultimately vetoed the legislation under intense pressure from businesses, fellow Republican lawmakers and the National Football League. But on Thursday, Pence praised the law as an important measure to protect people of faith in Indiana.
“This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it,” Pence said in a statement, adding that it will “ensure that Indiana will continue to be a place where we respect freedom of religion.”
The move prompted an immediate backlash from some members of the business community and the NCAA, which is based in Indianapolis. “We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees,” NCAA President Mark Emmert wrote in a statement.
The American Civil Liberties Union called the measure retribution after a federal judge struck down the state’s same-sex marriage ban last year.
“Religious freedom is a core American value, one that the ACLU has been defending since its founding,” Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel for the ACLU said in a statement. “However, we will continue to oppose any attempts to use religion to discriminate.”
Similar bills are being considered in Arkansas and Georgia.