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Indiana Gov. responds to furor over religious objections law

Last Updated Mar 29, 2015 11:31 AM EDT

INDIANAPOLIS - Indiana Gov. Mike Pence defended the new state law that's garnered widespread criticism over concerns it could foster discrimination and said Sunday it wasn't a mistake to have enacted it.

Pence appeared on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" to discuss the measure he signed last week prohibiting state laws that "substantially burden" a person's ability to follow his or her religious beliefs. The definition of "person" includes religious institutions, businesses and associations.

Since the Republican signed the bill into law Thursday, Indiana has been widely criticized by businesses and organizations around the nation, as well as on social media with the hashtag #boycottindiana. Already, consumer review service Angie's List has said it will suspend a planned expansion in Indianapolis because of the new law.

Pence, a Republican, did not answer directly when asked six times whether under the law it would be legal for a merchant to refuse to serve gay customers. "This is not about discrimination, this is about empowering people to confront government overreach," he said. Asked again, he said, "Look, the issue here is still is tolerance a two-way street or not."

Pence told the Indianapolis Star on Saturday that he was in discussions with legislative leaders over the weekend and expects a clarification bill to be introduced in the coming week. He addressed that Sunday, saying, "if the General Assembly ... sends me a bill that adds a section that reiterates and amplifies and clarifies what the law really is and what it has been for the last 20 years, then I'm open to that."

But Pence was adamant that the measure, slated to take effect in July, will stick. "We're not going to change this law," Pence said.

Some national gay-rights groups say it's a way for lawmakers in Indiana and several others states where such bills have been proposed this year to essentially grant a state-sanctioned waiver for discrimination as the nation's highest court prepares to mull the gay marriage question.

Supporters of the law, including Pence, contend discrimination claims are overblown and insist it will keep the government from compelling people to provide services they find objectionable on religious grounds. They also maintain courts haven't allowed discrimination under similar laws covering the federal government and 19 other states. Arkansas is poised to follow in Indiana's footsteps, with a final vote expected next week in the House on legislation that Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he'll sign.

Josh Earnest, President Barack Obama's spokesman, appeared on "This Week" just after Pence, and said the debate isn't a political argument.

"If you have to go back two decades to try to justify what you're doing today, it may raise questions," Earnest said, referring to the 1993 federal law Pence brought up. He added that Pence "is in damage-control mode this morning and he's got some damage to fix."

State Rep. Ed DeLaney, an Indianapolis Democrat, told a large, boisterous crowd Saturday gathered outside of the Statehouse to protest that the law creates "a road map, a path to discrimination." Rally attendees chanted "Pence must go!" several times and held signs that read "No hate in our state."

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Demonstrators gather at Monument Circle to protest a controversial religious freedom bill recently signed by Governor Mike Pence, during a rally in Indianapolis on March 28, 2015.
REUTERS/Nate Chute

Rachel Cowgill and Amy Knopf have been together for 15 years.

"I don't want my child living in an environment where she's made to feel like her family is somehow less than other families," Knopf said.

The protest echoed growing opposition online as companies from Apple to pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly took to social media to express reservations about the law. Angie's List had sought an $18.5 million incentive package from Indianapolis' City-County Council to add 1,000 jobs over five years. But founder and CEO Bill Oseterle said in a statement Saturday that the expansion was on hold "until we fully understand the implications of the freedom restoration act on our employees."

Pence addressed the critics Sunday, saying: "This avalanche of intolerance that's been poured on our state is just outrageous." Asked if he would be willing to add sexual orientation to the list of characteristics against which discrimination is illegal, he said, "I will not push for that. That's not on my agenda, and that's not been an objective of the people of the state of Indiana."

U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat, released a video statement on his Facebook page Saturday, saying: "We'll work together to reverse SB101 and we'll stand together to make sure that here in Indiana, we welcome everyone, every day."

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican who opposed the law, has said he and other city officials will talk with businesses and convention planners to counter the uproar.

The Indianapolis-based NCAA has expressed concerns about the law and has suggested it could move future events elsewhere; the men's Final Four will be held in the city next weekend.