A plainspoken Midwesterner and former six-term U.S. congressman, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence governs a reliably Republican state with a persona at once staunchly conservative—pro-religion, anti-big government, pro-life, anti-same-sex marriage—yet low-key and likable. (Think: 1980, the Gipper.) When Pence stayed true to his word by signing Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in March, he went from a potential presidential dark horse to the center of a national controversy.
Indiana Senate Bill 101 allows individuals and companies to claim as a defense in a lawsuit that their free exercise of religion had been, or could
be, substantially burdened. Civic, business and political leaders (including former Indiana Senator Richard Lugar and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, both Republicans) blasted the law, calling it unnecessary and an open door to discrimination.
For Pence, signing the RFRA into law brought a maelstrom of criticism. For planners, it meant the possibility that Indiana conference vendors could refuse service during meetings to clients and attendees based solely on their religious beliefs. Major sports, corporate and entertainment groups either threatened to pull their meetings or outright canceled events in Indianapolis, the state’s capital city and red-hot convention hub. It didn’t take long for the frazzled governor and his equally dazed legislature to amend the law by adding anti-discrimination wording (churches and affiliated schools exempted). The damage, though, was done.