With eyes from around Indiana on Mike Pence to guide the way out of the state’s veritable civil war — a fight between LGBT rights and religious freedom — the Republican governor instead stunned some onlookers Tuesday night by taking no position at all.
"This is a complete letdown,” Chris Paulsen, the campaign manager of LGBT rights group Freedom Indiana, said in a statement released as Pence delivered his annual State of the State address.
If anything, Pence made the political waters murkier by nodding to both sides of the debate, opposing discrimination while also supporting religious freedom, without addressing the content of a half-dozen bills piling up in the legislature.
“I will always give careful consideration to any bill you send me,” Pence told a joint session of the legislature.
In doing so, Pence effectively punted one of the state's most contested issues when many thought he could be a bellwether.
Pence had been widely expected to announce some sort of position on LGBT nondiscrimination legislation, a move that could heal Indiana’s bruises from last year’s explosive legislative session. Lawmakers passed an uncommonly broad religious freedom bill that critics around the U.S. said would allow businesses to turn away LGBT customers — leading business leaders, LGBT advocates, and legislators scrambling to push new bills this year that would show LGBT people are welcome in Indiana.
“Last year, we saw how vulnerable Indiana is to negative public perceptions,” Peter Hanscom, a spokesman for Indiana Competes — a coalition of 392 Indiana-based businesses — told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday before Pence's comments.
“We want Pence to take decisive action to say to the nation and the world that you can do business in Indiana, we are a welcoming state for all people, and we are a competitive in the global economy,” Hanscom added.
Business lobbies have been a traditional part of the GOP base in Indiana, where both chambers of the legislature and the governor's office are controlled by Republicans, but the corporate interests have this year pushed for a comprehensive LGBT nondiscrimination bill at odds with some party leaders.
Instead, Pence’s remarks leaned more toward religious freedom than LGBT rights — he did not directly address lesbians, gays, bisexuals, or transgender people in the speech.
“I will not support any bill that diminished 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 bills lawmakers have filed on LGBT rights this month vary widely, with policy features that range from omitting transgender protections entirely to preempting existing local nondiscrimination laws. Other bills define religious organizations so broadly that business advocates told BuzzFeed News the rules could be manipulated to turn away LGBT people.
National LGBT rights group Human Rights Campaign lamented Pence's annual address.
"The state is in urgent need of leadership by the Governor to undo the damage from last year’s debacle, and Pence is clearly unwilling or incapable of doing the job," JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president for policy and political affairs, said in a statement.