March 30, 2015 / 4:53 PM / 2 years ago

Indiana to clarify 'religious freedom' law, Georgia, N.C. bills stall

Demonstrators gather at Monument Circle to protest a controversial religious freedom bill recently signed by Governor Mike Pence, during a rally in Indianapolis March 28, 2015. REUTERS/Nate Chute

(Reuters) - Indiana Republicans pledged on Monday to clarify a new “religious freedom” law, while similar proposals stalled in Georgia and North Carolina after businesses and activists said such measures could be used to discriminate against gays.

Arkansas lawmakers, however, signaled they would move forward with their own bill, even after Indiana was rebuked by companies and executives including Wal-Mart Stores Inc, Apple Inc CEO Tim Cook, and Eli Lilly and Co.

Indiana’s law, signed by Governor Mike Pence last week, was perceived as going further than those passed in 19 other states, giving businesses a right to refuse services on religious grounds.

Gay marriage became legal in Indiana last year following an appeals court ruling, and gay rights activists say Republicans pushed through the religious freedom act in response. The law was enacted months before an expected U.S. Supreme Court ruling over state bans on same-sex marriage.

The law has drawn intense criticism, including concerns from the president of the Indianapolis-based National Collegiate Athletic Association, which is holding its men’s basketball championship Final Four beginning this weekend in the city.

On Monday, Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma and state Senate President Pro Tem David Long, both Republicans, told reporters the law was not intended to discriminate, and that it sets a legal standard allowing people of all faiths to bring religious freedom claims.

“To the extent that we need to clarify that, by adding something to the law to make that clear that’s not the intent, we are more than willing to do it,” Long said.

Nine chief executive officers, including the heads of Angie’s List and Eli Lilly, wrote letters to Pence, Bosma and Long on Monday asking them to “take immediate action” to ensure the act will not sanction or encourage discrimination.

Thousands rallied against the law in Indianapolis last weekend and the cities of San Francisco and Seattle and the state of Connecticut all banned official travel to Indiana.

Demonstrators gather at Monument Circle to protest a controversial religious freedom bill recently signed by Governor Mike Pence, during a rally in Indianapolis March 28, 2015. REUTERS/Nate Chute

The rock band Wilco announced on Twitter on Monday it was canceling its May 7 Indianapolis show because of this “odious measure.”

“We’ve been embarrassed before the nation,” Indiana House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, a Democrat, told reporters, calling for the law’s repeal.

PENCE DEFENDS LAW

Bosma said lawmakers were looking at different options for clarifying the law, such as removing the specter of it being used as a defense to claims that services were denied on a discriminatory basis.

On Sunday, Pence defended the law and said he would not push for a nondiscrimination bill to counteract its possible impact, but he said he was open to the General Assembly adding a section that clarifies the law.

Similar religious freedom bills have stalled in Georgia and North Carolina.

Earlier in March, the Republican-controlled Georgia state Senate approved a bill, but supporters put the measure on hold after a Republican House member added anti-discrimination language.

North Carolina Republican Governor Pat McCrory said on Monday he would not sign a religious freedom bill as written because it would allow government officials to refuse to perform marriages based on a religious objection.

In Arkansas, the Republican-controlled House is expected to approve a bill advanced by state senators last week, and Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson has said he would sign it.

Arkansas-based retail giant Wal-Mart Stores said the bill sends the “wrong message” about the state.

Reporting and writing by Fiona Ortiz in Chicago; Additional reporting by Mary Wisniewski in Chicago, David Beasley in Atlanta, Jon Herskovitz in Austin and Colleen Jenkins in Winston-; Salem, North Carolina; Editing by Susan Heavey and Eric Beech

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