(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 (WMT.N), Apple Inc (AAPL.O) CEO Tim Cook, and Eli Lilly and Co (LLY.N).
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 act in response. It 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 in the city beginning this weekend.
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 ANGI.O 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 Washington state’s governor on Monday said the state would join Connecticut, San Francisco and Seattle in banning official travel to Indiana.
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.
Bosma said lawmakers were looking at different options for clarifying the law.
Pence on Monday defended it in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, saying it “has been grossly misconstrued.”
“I want to make clear to (Indiana residents) and every American that despite what critics and many in the national media have asserted, the law is not a ‘license to discriminate,’ either in Indiana or elsewhere,” he said.
On Sunday, Pence said he would not push for a nondiscrimination bill to counteract its possible impact, but said he was open to the General Assembly adding a section that clarifies the law.
Earlier in March, a Senate-approved bill in Georgia was put on hold after a House member added anti-discrimination language.
On Monday, North Carolina’s governor said he would not sign a religious freedom bill because it would allow government officials to refuse to perform marriages on religious grounds.
In Arkansas, the Republican-controlled House is expected to approve a bill advanced by state senators, 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, Eric Beech and Eric Walsh