WASHINGTON -- As he pushes back against criticism over the "religious freedom" law he recently signed, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) has insisted that the statute does not, as his detractors allege, invite discrimination of gays and lesbians.
"I think that’s a separate issue. All right?" Pence said during a press conference Tuesday, stressing that LGBT protections would not be added to a bill meant to uphold religious freedom.
"That’s a separate question that ought to be considered separate from this idea of religious liberty," he added.
Pence's effort to separate religious freedom from LGBT protections has been met with skepticism, in part because of the political context in which the law was passed -- in a few months, the Supreme Court is expected to legalize same-sex marriage nationally -- but also because the governor is no stranger to these types of fights. In fact, as a member of Congress, he welcomed them.
It wasn't too long ago that Pence, representing Indiana’s 6th Congressional District in the House, was pushing legislation premised on the idea that the gay rights agenda is directly at odds with religious liberty. The circumstances were different, but the underlying conflict was similar to the debate taking place today.
In 2007, the House was considering the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which sought to expand the definition of a "hate crime" to include violence against a person over that person's perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Then-Rep. Pence offered an amendment to the bill that read: "Nothing in this section limits the religious freedom of any person or group under the Constitution." The goal, he said, was to ensure that religious leaders and institutions didn't self-censor themselves for fear of being blamed for inciting a hate crime.
"Putting a chill on a pastor's words or a religious broadcaster's programming, an evangelical leader's message, or even the leader of a small group Bible study is a blatant attack on the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of religion," Pence said at the time.
His amendment was rejected and the bill went on to pass the House without it. Fortunately for Pence, the legislation never made it out of the Senate, as it got tangled up in procedural hurdles and Iraq war politics. Either way, though, President George W. Bush had threatened to veto the bill out of concerns -- similar to Pence's -- that it would end up infringing on the free exercise of religion.
Two years and one president later, the legislation was back. And as the bill made its way through the chamber, Pence was once again forcefully pushing back, citing the threat to religious freedom.
"To put a fine point on it, any pastor, preacher, priest, rabbi, or imam, who may give a sermon out of their moral traditions about sexual practices, could presumably under this legislation be found to have aided, abetted or induced in the commission of a federal crime," he said in an Oct. 8, 2009, floor speech. "This will have a chilling effect on religious expression, from the pulpits, in our temples, in our mosques and in our churches. And it must be undone."
This time around, Republicans didn't have the numbers to oppose the bill, and President Barack Obama signed it into law on Oct. 28. Once again, Pence was one of the most vocal critics.
Hate crime legislation is different from the new religious freedom law: Pence's problem with the former was that it could be used as a cudgel to go after religious institutions, while he supports the latter because he believes protections afforded to religious institutions should, in some ways, be extended to individuals and businesses.
Still, his efforts in Congress do show that Pence has a history of seeing LGBT protections as threatening religious freedoms -- despite what he is saying now.
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