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Indiana revises religious freedom law amid backlash

"As governor, I must always put the interest of our state first." - Indiana Gov. Mike Pence

By Doug G. Ware

INDIANAPOLIS, April 2 (UPI) -- After seven days of vicious criticisms leveled from coast to coast, Indiana's government on Thursday acted to revise its Senate Bill 101 -- known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act -- to eliminate the perceived legal status protecting discrimination in the state.

The law, passed last week by a vote of 40-10, ignited a firestorm of outrage nationwide following its adoption. Ordinary citizens and high-profile corporate entities spoke up by the thousands to protest what they saw as a legalization of prejudice among organizations and businesses.

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The original law's language stated that persons and businesses were protected by law from backlash prompted by discriminatory practices against certain persons or groups.

For example, the law protected a small-town pizza parlor that refused to cater to same-sex weddings because its owners felt it imposed a "burden" on their religious beliefs. The owner, Kevin O'Connor, said as much in a television interview Wednesday -- which was rapidly followed by criticism, anger and at least one threat from opponents to the law.

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Hoping to quell the controversy, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence moved to modify the law Thursday -- adding language making it clear that it is not legal to discriminate in the state of Indiana.

"Over the past week this law has become a subject of great misunderstanding and controversy across our state and nation," the Republican governor, who championed the original bill, said Thursday. "However we got here, we are where we are, and it is important that our state take action to address the concerns that have been raised and move forward.

"I called upon the Indiana General Assembly to clarify that this new judicial standard would not create a license to discriminate or to deny services to any individual, as its critics have alleged. I am grateful for the efforts of legislators, business and other community leaders who came together to forge this clarifying language in the law."

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Senate Bill 101 was roundly slammed after its passage by business leaders like Apple CEO Tim Cook and the president of the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), which is headquartered in Indianapolis.

Although Indiana isn't the only state to pass such religious protection, it bore the brunt of the criticism. Some applauded the law's modification Thursday, but some maintain that the law stops short of granting full and equal rights to the LGBT community.

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"Though this legislation is certainly a step back from the cliff, this fight is not over until every person in Indiana is fully equal under the law," Human Rights Campaign president and gay rights advocate Chad Griffin said.

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"Because of [the] changes, the harm of the law has been lessened, but there remain significant problems that must be addressed," the American Civil Liberties Union said.

A 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, blasted the corporate criticisms and accused them of "running shamelessly to endorse the radical gay marriage agenda over religious liberty."

"Religious liberty is not some fringe view," he told a group of people in Dallas. "It is the basis of this country. America was founded by people fleeing religious persecution, and coming here seeking the freedom to worship God with all of our hearts, minds and souls."

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The Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group, urged a counter-offensive -- asking Christians to boycott products of companies -- like Walmart and Eli Lilly Pharmaceuticals -- who attacked the religious freedom law.

Three prominent social conservatives who staunchly championed the law's passage, and stood behind Gov. Pence as he signed it into law, derided the backlash the measure has received. Eric Miller, Micah Clark and Curt Smith reacted coolly to Thursday's amendment.

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Miller, president of AdvanceAmerica, said the new changes would "destroy religious freedom protection in Indiana."

"I believe what you have done is make it worse for Hoosier businesses," Miller told lawmakers Thursday.

Executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana, Clark agreed.

"Our legal advisors tell us that it actually changes our law in a way that could now erode religious freedom across Indiana," he said in a prepared statement.

Smith, of the Indiana Family Institute, said Thursday's changes to the law defeat its entire purpose.

"By taking [the law's] protection away from small business owners at the local level, this additional legislation creates a problem the current law was designed to fix," he said.

Sen. Cruz voiced particular concern about the ideologies of the Democratic party in the United States, saying their views of same-sex marriages make an enemy of those who believe unions should be between a man and woman.

"Because of their partisan desire to mandate gay marriage everywhere in this country, they also want to persecute anyone who has a good faith religious belief that marriage is a holy sacrament, the union of one man and one woman and ordained as a covenant by God," he said.

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Gov. Pence, who was happy with the bill's original language, said he made the changes out of concern for what's best for his state.

"There will be some who think this legislation goes too far and some who think it does not go far enough, but as governor I must always put the interest of our state first and ask myself every day, 'What is best for Indiana?'" he said.

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