As Indiana Gov. Mike Pence asks lawmakers to send him a clarification of the state's new religious-freedom law later this week, at least one Northwest Indiana pastor is speaking out against the prospect of changes.
On Tuesday, Pence defended the Indiana law as a vehicle to protect religious liberty but said he has been meeting with lawmakers "around the clock" to address concerns that it would allow businesses to deny services to gay customers.
The governor said he does not believe "for a minute" that lawmakers intended "to create a license to discriminate."
"It certainly wasn't my intent," said Pence, who signed the law last week.
But, he said, he "can appreciate that that's become the perception, not just here in Indiana but all across the country. We need to confront that."
“It would make the bill null and void,” Rev. Ron Johnson, senior pastor of Living Stones Church in Crown Point, Indiana, told WBEZ. “Because it’s not going to protect religious liberty.”
The Indiana law prohibits any 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.
Although the legal language does not specifically mention gays and lesbians, critics say the law is designed to shield businesses and individuals who do not want to serve gays and lesbians, such as florists or caterers who might be hired for a same-sex wedding.
Johnson says from his understanding, the law could allow something more troubling.
“Nobody is saying that if you come into get a hamburger you say, ‘Hey, are you a homosexual? I’m not going to serve you a hamburger.’ That is not even the issue,” Johnson said. “The issue has been specifically related to forcing someone to celebrate a same-sex wedding ceremony that they believe violates their religious beliefs. That’s where the rub has come.”
Johnson feels the religious community is being forced to accept something they do not believe in.
“We’re talking about the Left and the gay lobby forcing us not to tolerate their behavior but to celebrate their behavior and that’s fundamentally wrong,” Johnson said. “Whatever group is pushing for their right to express themselves sexually however they want to do it, if you don’t jump on the bandwagon and support that then you’re a bigot, or you’re a hater."
Johnson added that the national backlash Indiana has endured following Pence’s signing of SB 101 into law has been shameful.
“This is a witch hunt if I ever saw one. Frankly, I think it’s an insult to Hoosiers. It’s an insult to our great governor who is an incredibly good man,” Johnson said.
The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act arose from a case related to the use of peyote in a Native American ritual.
But in 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal law did not apply to the states. So states began enacting their own laws. Twenty now have them on the books, including Illinois.
Businesses and organizations including Apple and the NCAA have voiced concern over Indiana's law, and some states have barred government-funded travel to the state.
Democratic legislative leaders said a clarification would not be enough.
"To say anything less than a repeal is going to fix it is incorrect," House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, a Democrat from Michigan City, said.
Republican Senate President Pro Tem David Long said lawmakers were negotiating a clarification proposal that he hoped would be ready for public release on Wednesday, followed by a vote Thursday before sending the package to the governor.
"We have a sense that we need to move quickly out here and be pretty nimble," Long said. "But right now, we don't have consensus on the language."
Also Tuesday, the Indianapolis Star urged state lawmakers in a front-page editorial to respond to widespread criticism of the law by protecting the rights of gays and lesbians.
The Star's editorial, headlined "FIX THIS NOW," covered the newspaper's entire front page. It called for lawmakers to enact a law that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.
The newspaper says the uproar sparked by the law has "done enormous harm" to the state and potentially to its economic future.
The state of Arkansas is now considering passing it’s own Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Michael Puente is WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana Bureau Reporter. Following him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.