INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – A group of evangelical ministers praised Gov. Mike Pence on Wednesday for saying during his State of the State address that he will protect religious freedom in the debate over civil rights protections for gay and transgender people.
Pence in his speech Tuesday night said he abhorred discrimination, but added that “no one should ever fear persecution because of their deeply held religious beliefs.” And he vowed not to support any bill that “diminishes the religious freedom of Hoosiers or interferes with the constitutional rights of our citizens to live out their beliefs in worship, service or work.”
On Wednesday, the Indiana Pastors Alliance rallied at the Statehouse, where members applauded the Republican governor’s remarks and vehemently objected to two Senate proposals addressing gay and transgender rights.
Pastor Kevin Baird said he took Pence’s speech as “a clear signal that he would be a firewall” against the Senate bills which he sees as representative of the “incremental strategy of the LGBT movement.”
“This isn’t the end of what they want,” Baird said. “They are fully aware that they want transgender bathrooms, they are fully aware that they want to coerce sincere people of faith to capitulate.”
Meanwhile, Pastor Ron Johnsons singled out GOP Senate leader David Long, calling him the “source of the problem.”
Long has said lawmakers need to have a discussion about LGBT rights, though he says Senate Republicans are not under pressure to approve either of the bills and ought to vote their conscience.
One bill would grant protections to anyone fired from a job, denied service, or evicted due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. It would also offer a long list of exemptions for clergy, small businesses and religious organizations. The other bill would do the same but excludes transgender people.
Indiana has been bitterly divided over the issue of LGBT civil rights ever since Pence and GOP lawmakers adopted a religious objections law in March that critics said sanctioned discrimination against LGBT people. That prompted lawmakers to make changes to the law just days later, but the issue still drove a wedge into the Republican Party base.
Religious conservatives worry that if the discrimination protections are adopted, Christian business owners will be forced compromise sincerely held religious beliefs by serving gay people. They cite event planners, photographers and bakers who might object to working at a same-sex wedding. Meanwhile, the state’s business establishment worries that without them, the law will harm the state’s ability to attract talent and jobs.
Long, of Fort Wayne, refused to comment through a spokesman on Wednesday. But following Pence’s speech, he said both measures appear to address the governors concerns, while acknowledging that Pence “kept his cards pretty close to the vest.”
Following the Wednesday rally, Baird’s group delivered petitions to the Senate bearing the signatures of about 2,500 people who object to the proposals on religious grounds.
Chris Paulsen, the campaign manager for the pro-gay rights group Freedom Indiana said evangelicals aren’t the only people motivated by Pence’s speech.
“I think our side is also energized by Gov. Pence’s speech by wanting to show that Indiana is not a place where discrimination is OK,” Paulsen said.