Indiana’s Mike Pence is starting to look like Lester Maddox -- without the spine

Once a symbol of the GOP’s “deep bench” of 2016 contenders, Pence is now a national symbol of intolerance

Published March 30, 2015 6:59PM (EDT)

Mike Pence                      (AP/Alex Brandon)
Mike Pence (AP/Alex Brandon)

It’s hard to keep up with the rapid devaluation of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s national political stock. As recently as last month, he was showing up in hot takes on the GOP’s “deep bench” of 2016 presidential contenders. Of course, I’ve already written about how that bench is in splinters, even before Pence began to look like a 21st century Lester Maddox -- without the spine.

On Sunday Pence hemmed and hawed but ultimately refused to tell ABC’s George Stephanopoulos whether Indiana’s horrible “religious freedom” law permits discrimination against LGBT Americans. “It’s a yes or no question!” the normally affable host challenged him. The Indiana governor repeatedly ducked the question while insisting “we’re not going to change the law.”

You can watch the whole thing here:

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Then Pence told the Indianapolis Star that in the face of a nationwide backlash, he would support legislation to “clarify” the law. “I just can’t account for the hostility that’s been directed at our state," Pence complained. "I’ve been taken aback by the mischaracterizations from outside the state of Indiana about what is in this bill.”

Apparently nervous Indiana Republicans are considering some sort of cleanup legislation that would leave the law intact, but “clarify” that it is intended to promote “religious freedom,” not sanction “discrimination.”  That’s a specious distinction.  The law will permit discrimination – whether or not it’s given the cover of “religious” sanction.

Bigots have often claimed lofty reasons for their bigotry, of course – this post by Ian Millhiser examined the history of pro-slavery and anti-integration racists using the Bible to justify their racism, often in terms eerily similar to those used to defend “religious freedom” laws today.

And while the media have been all over the Indiana story, very few accounts have explained exactly why this law is extraordinary – and extraordinarily bad. Pence essentially lied his way through the Stephanopoulos interview, insisting it’s the same as the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” President Clinton signed in 1993 – and that President Obama backed a similar law in Illinois.

But Pence isn’t alone in making those claims. On Friday the Washington Post claimed that Indiana will be “just one of 20 states with a version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” and yet it’s the only one facing calls for a nationwide boycott. Think Progress shows that’s not at all true. Yes, 19 states and the federal government have laws that contain some type of language prohibiting government from "substantially burdening" someone’s exercise of religion without a "compelling government interest." But so far only Indiana’s allows a private citizen who believes their religious freedom is burdened by being forced to provide service to a class of private citizens – most commonly, LGBT Americans -- to therefore legally deny those individuals service.

The Atlantic’s Garrett Epps comes to the same conclusion as Think Progress: “There’s ‘nothing significant’ about this law that differs from the federal one, and other state ones—except that it has been carefully written to make clear that 1) businesses can use it against 2) civil-rights suits brought by individuals.” Arizona passed a similar law, you may recall, but then Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed it in the wake of boycott threats.

But Pence is trying to seem tougher than Brewer. He claims Indiana’s law wasn’t about discriminating against LGBT Americans, but protecting the religious freedom of Christians. “Tolerance is a two way street” he repeatedly insisted on “This Week.” When Stephanopoulos asked one last time whether he would say for the record that he opposed anti-LGBT discrimination, he blew up. “Come on -- Hoosiers don’t believe in discrimination,” Pence whined, praising “Hoosier hospitality.”

So far Pence isn’t convincing corporate leaders. Not just San Francisco based Salesforce but Indianapolis based Angie’s List have announced plans to curtail business in Indiana. The cities of Seattle and San Francisco have broadcast similar restrictions. Apple’s Tim Cook penned a Washington Post op-ed to announce the firm opposed the Indiana law, insisting that “from North Carolina to Nevada, these bills under consideration truly will hurt jobs, growth and the economic vibrancy of parts of the country where a 21st-century economy was once welcomed with open arms.”

Pence can try to convince the country that “tolerance is a two-way street” and “Hoosiers don’t believe in discrimination.” But it doesn’t appear to be working. Now he's trying to have it both ways, insisting on ABC that "We won't change the law," then making a mealy-mouthed promise to consider “clarifying” it. Though he blames it on the "mischaracterization" of outside agitators -- much like the defenders of southern segregation did back in the 1950s and '60s -- Pence showed that the pressure is getting to him. As the NCAA heads to Indianapolis for the “Final Four” tournament next weekend, expect that pressure to grow.



By Joan Walsh