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Politics In The News: Religious Freedom Act


Here in the United States, the governor of Indiana is defending his choice to sign what is called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The state law says the government must fully respect people's religious beliefs unless the government has a compelling interest in overwriting them. Supporters of that law have said it would allow businesspeople to refuse service at a gay wedding if they disagree on religious grounds. Governor Mike Pence has declined to say if the law he signed would do exactly that. So now we turn to Cokie Roberts, as we do most Mondays, to help sort this all out. Hi, Cokie.


INSKEEP: So much discussion about this. The chief executive officer of Apple, Tim Cook, who is gay, writes in The Washington Post today about the law. Eli Lilly, huge Indiana company, has raised concerns. So has the NCAA, which is based in Indiana. How is Governor Mike Pence responding to all this?

ROBERTS: Well, he says he would look at some sort of clarification of the law. But he went on ABC yesterday and defended it mightily, saying he supports the law. He kept saying over and over again it was the same as the federal law signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton and an Illinois law voted for by then state Senator Barack Obama, though there are some differences. But he would not endorse what other states have done, which is to ensure civil rights protections for gay and lesbian citizens. He said that's, quote, "not on my agenda."

And he repeatedly refused to answer the question that you just raised. When a specific example was presented - could a florist, for instance, refuse to do the flowers for a gay couple's wedding? - the governor never answered that question. He just went on the attack, talking about how horrified he was by the avalanche of criticism of a law that 19 other states had passed. And, Steve, you will appreciate this as a Hoosier. He kept talking about Hoosier hospitality.

INSKEEP: Well, it's a hospitable state. There's no doubt about that.

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Very proud to be from there. But let's try to sort out some of the things you just mentioned there, Cokie. You said that according to Mike Pence, this is the same law that's been signed by Bill Clinton, voted for by state Senator Barack Obama, but that there are some differences. How different is this situation in Indiana from any other place?

ROBERTS: The main difference, Steve, is timing. It's a different time from when those bills were passed. They were passed at a time when there were strong views in the country that the government was encroaching on religion. And the Democratic Party desperately wanted to show that it was not anti-religion. But as Tim Cook said in his op-ed, quote, "the days of segregation and discrimination marked by whites only signs on shop doors must remain deep in our past."

And I grew up, you know, in that time, and if 20 years after the civil rights law a state had tried to pass a law saying, well, we have segregation in our state, that couldn't have been legal. But they wouldn't have even tried it. And right now, that's the functional equivalent here because the most dramatic social change we've seen in American history has been on this subject of gay marriage. Attitudes have just changed dramatically, and that's the reason Governor Pence signed the bill in private. He didn't want to call attention to it. But you can't get away with that in the modern era, and, as you said, businesses are threatening to withdraw from Indiana. So it could mean severe economic consequences for the state.

INSKEEP: But let me keep slowing this down 'cause it's so confusing for people. How different, if at all, is the legal landscape in Indiana than, say, Illinois or other places that have somewhat similar laws?

ROBERTS: Well, Governor Pence says it's not different. That's the point he was making. But as I said earlier, there are other laws in Illinois protecting the civil rights of gays and lesbians, and Governor Pence says he doesn't want to go there. Look, eventually, Steve, this is going to have get settled in a court of law. Somebody's going to have to bring suit, and then the courts will decide what the law means or - and this is where it's different from 20 years ago - it might get settled in the court of public opinion. If businesses start pulling out of Indiana, then you'll see a reaction in the legislature to that law.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much. That's Cokie Roberts, who joins us most Mondays. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cokie Roberts was one of the 'Founding Mothers' of NPR who helped make that network one of the premier sources of news and information in this country. She served as a congressional correspondent at NPR for more than 10 years and later appeared as a commentator on Morning Edition. In addition to her work for NPR, Roberts was a political commentator for ABC News, providing analysis for all network news programming.