Pence backing religious freedom in LGBT rights debate

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said Tuesday he would prioritize religious freedom in the debate over civil rights protections for gay and transgender people, showing no retreat from his stance during last spring’s national uproar over the state’s religious objections law.

The Republican governor said in his half-hour televised State of the State speech before legislators that no one should be mistreated because of “who they love or what they believe.” But he also said that “no one should ever fear persecution because of their deeply held religious beliefs.”

“I will not 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,” Pence said.

The religious objections law Pence signed in March prohibits other state laws that “substantially burden” a person’s ability to follow his or her religious beliefs. It led to a social media-driven storm of protests, with critics calling for boycotts of the state because they believed the law would sanction discrimination against gays.

After Tuesday’s speech, the group Indiana Competes, which represents prominent state business interests — including Cummins Inc., Eli Lilly and Co. and the NCAA — expressed disappointment with Pence’s remarks.

“We were looking for a moment of leadership, and what we got is a shoulder shrug,” said group spokesman Peter Hanscom, who said Pence’s conciliatory words won’t stop discrimination against gay people in employment, housing and public accommodation.

Pence had avoided taking a position on the issue for months, though bills are pending in the Legislature that would extend varying degrees of LGBT protections, along with a long list of religious exemptions. Pence didn’t say specifically whether he believed those bills would infringe on religious freedoms.

Republican Senate leader David Long said he believes measures in the Senate could comply with Pence’s guidelines, but added Pence has “kept his cards pretty close to the vest.”

Pence’s speech — heading into what’s expected to be a hotly contested re-election campaign this fall — focused on where Indiana has been as a state and where Pence would like it to go, including plans for increased government spending.

Among the programs he celebrated was his Regional Cities initiative that doles out millions of dollars for quality-of-life projects in the Fort Wayne, Evansville and South Bend metro areas, which were chosen over four other regions.

Pence said millions more need to be spent on improving Indiana’s state highways, which are poorly rated and have become a heated campaign issue.

But in a subtle dig to Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma, Pence called for doing so without raising taxes. A proposal that Bosma is supporting would increase both the state gasoline and cigarette taxes to pump an additional $500 million a year into roads spending.

“I think when you have money in the bank and you’ve got the best credit rating in America, the last place you should look to pay for roads and bridges is the wallets and the pocketbooks of hardworking Hoosiers,” Pence said.

He also called for better health care, touting his Healthy Indiana Plan, which is Indiana’s expansion of Medicaid under President Barack Obama’s federal health care overhaul.

And he pointed to a $50 million increase in state education funding, as well as two bills that will spare teachers and schools from being penalized for low student performance on ISTEP, the standardized test.

Pence faces a likely gubernatorial election rematch in November with Democrat John Gregg, the former Indiana House speaker he narrowly beat in 2012.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane said Pence made clear which side of the social divide he stands on.

“He’s proud of what happened last year and thinks it’s absolutely not necessary to restore our reputation as a state,” Lanane said.

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Associated Press writer Tom Davies contributed to this report.

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