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Pence defends Indiana law, says state will ‘fix’ religious bill to say it will not allow discrimination

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) says his state will "correct" the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, saying the law "does not give anyone a license deny services to gay and lesbian couples." (Video: Reuters)

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) vowed Tuesday morning that the state would alter a religious liberties bill that has drawn widespread criticism, even as he defended the law and insisted it was being unfairly portrayed in the media.

Pence urged lawmakers to pass legislation making it clear “that this law does not give businesses the right to deny services to anyone.”

“We need to focus specifically on this perception that this creates some license to discriminate,” he said at a news conference in Indianapolis.

The change is a “clarification, but it’s also a fix,” Pence said of the update he hopes to see in the bill, which has been pilloried as anti-gay and has prompted business leaders and organizations across the country to question the law.

While Pence promised that the bill would be updated, he did not support a repeal of the legislation, nor did he say that language would be added explicitly protecting gay or transgender people. He also spent a significant portion of the news conference defending the bill and criticizing the media, insisting that the current legislation did not allow for discrimination.

“This law has been smeared,” he said.

Rather than saying that the bill would be changed because it was problematic, he instead said that Indiana had to act because the state now has a “perception problem.”

[FACT CHECKER: Is the controversial Indiana law ‘the same’ as a law backed by Obama?]

The bill has been heavily criticized by business leaders like Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple, as well as the NCAA, the powerful collegiate sports organization that is headquartered in Indianapolis and is having the men’s basketball Final Four there this weekend. Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, said Monday that if the law was not changed, the organization could reconsider whether to host future events in the state.

“People don’t want this,” Adam Talbot of the Human Rights Campaign said Monday of this legislation and a similar bill being considered in Arkansas. “People don’t need this. People think it’s dangerous.”

Nine chief executives of Indiana companies signed a letter Monday calling on Pence to update the law, saying that they were concerned about “the impact it is having on our employees and on the reputation of our state.”

The Indianapolis Star, in an editorial that ran on the front page of Tuesday’s newspaper, said that the law “has already done enormous harm to our state and potentially our economic future.”

[Analysis: Indiana and the fundamental divisions in American politics]

Pence said he was proud to sign the act last week and stood by it, saying that the law is “about religious liberty, not about discrimination.”

“This legislation was designed to ensure the vitality of religious liberty in the Hoosier state,” he said. He added: “This law does not give anyone a license to discriminate.”

Still, Pence admitted Tuesday that he was “taken aback” by the way the story erupted into a national firestorm, pointing to similar (but different) laws that had been passed across the country and by then-President Bill Clinton in 1993.

“Was I expecting this kind of backlash? Heavens no,” he said.

Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) signed a controversial religious freedom bill into law on March 26, 2015. The Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey explains what's in that law and why there's so much opposition to it. (Video: Pamela Kirkland/The Washington Post)

As he has in recent days, Pence lashed out at what he called “sloppy” media reporting that he said mischaracterized the bill, decrying what he called a perception that the bill allows for discrimination. He called this “baseless,” but he also said that the state needs to make it clear that businesses will not be allowed to deny services.

“Early on, there was some really reckless and irresponsible reporting about this,” he said, adding later: “The perception of this has, you know, gone far afield from what the law really is.”

A day earlier, Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma (R) said the legislature could act as soon as this week to “clarify” the state’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which grants individuals and businesses legal grounds to defend themselves against claims of discrimination. The fix, Bosma said, would make clear that the law does not allow people to discriminate against gays, as critics contend.

“It’s been a tough week for the Hoosier state, but we’re going to move forward,” Pence said Tuesday.

Pence said he had spoken to business leaders and organizations about the bill, though he did not go into detail about what these conversations had entailed. “Clearly, there’s been misunderstanding and confusion and mischaracterization of this law,” he said.

[This post has been updated. First published: 11:03 a.m.]