Washington (CNN) Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is set to sign into law a measure that allows businesses to turn away gay and lesbian customers in the name of “religious freedom.”
The move comes as Pence considers a bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination — and just a year after Pence and socially conservative lawmakers lost their first policy battle against gay Hoosiers. In 2014 they had sought to amend Indiana’s constitution to ban same-sex marriages — but were beaten back by a highly-organized coalition of Democrats, traditionally right-leaning business organizations and fiscally focused supporters of Pence’s predecessor, former GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels.
This year, though, the Republican-dominated state House and Senate both approved the “religious freedom” bill, and Pence plans to sign it into law in a private ceremony Thursday, his spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday afternoon.
If Pence decides to mount a dark horse presidential bid — which looks increasingly unlikely as candidates like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker court the same supporters he would need — the “religious freedom” bill could give him a boost among GOP primary voters, especially in socially conservative states like Iowa.
But it could also badly damage his prospects in a general election, where polls have shown that voters increasingly oppose policies that discriminate against gays and lesbians.
In a statement, Pence said the bill “is about respecting and reassuring Hoosiers that their religious freedoms are intact. I strongly support the legislation and applaud the members of the General Assembly for their work on this important issue.”
Proponents have argued the bill doesn’t target gays and lesbians specifically — but that it does protect businesses that don’t support same-sex marriage from having to provide services for those ceremonies.
Other states have passed similar laws. Eighteen others have similar measures on the books, and social conservatives have been re-energized in their push for “religious freedom” laws after the Supreme Court’s decision in a health care-related case that allowed Hobby Lobby and other businesses to opt not to provide insurance coverage for contraception.
Also fueling the push: The Supreme Court’s expected ruling in June on whether same-sex marriage is constitutionally protected and therefore legal in all 50 states.
But Pence and Republican lawmakers are running into intense criticism — too late to stop the legislation from advancing, but in time for Pence to feel pressure to veto the bill rather than signing it into law.
They’d hoped it would become Pence’s “Jan Brewer moment” — a reference to the Arizona Republican governor who vetoed a similar bill last year, saying “it could divide Arizona in ways that we could not even imagine and no one would ever want.”
The local heat has put the reputation of Indianapolis as a host to massive gatherings like the NCAA’s Final Four and the annual Gen Con gaming convention at risk.
Jason Collins, who last year became the first openly gay active NBA player, asked Pence in a tweet whether it is “going to be legal for someone to discriminate against me & others when we come” to the Final Four in two weeks.
The organizers of Gen Con, which draws thousands of gamers to Downtown Indianapolis restaurants and hotels each year, said they might move the event elsewhere if Pence signs the bill into law.
“Legislation that could allow for refusal of service or discrimination against our attendees will have a direct negative impact on the state’s economy, and will factor into our decision-making on hosting the convention in the state of Indiana in future years,” Adrian Swartout, the owner of Gen Con LLC, told Pence in a letter.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which also holds a convention in Indianapolis, told Pence it could cancel its 2017 convention there, as well.
The chief executive of tech giant Salesforce told Pence that his company — which had bought Indianapolis-based Exact Target for $2.5 billion in 2013 — would abandon the state and its expansion plans there if he signed the measure into law.
And the Republican mayor of Indianapolis, Greg Ballard, broke with Pence on the bill, saying it would put his city’s economy at risk.
“Indianapolis strives to be a welcoming place that attracts businesses, conventions, visitors and residents,” Ballard said Wednesday in a statement. “We are a diverse city, and I want everyone who visits and lives in Indy to feel comfortable here.”