Indiana law appears to permit discrimination

It didn’t take long. Once Indiana’s Republican Gov. Mike Pence appeared on national television to defend the indefensible, people from Apple CEO Tim Cook to the band Wilco to Wal-Mart executives to NCAA officials joined civil rights groups in condemning what Pence was defending.

And within hours, the governor who had done so badly on ABC’s “This Week” program was backpedaling faster than a circus unicyclist.

At issue is an Indiana law that would not allow state laws that “substantially burden” a person’s right to religious beliefs. Sounds harmless enough, except Pence never could say whether the law would make it legal for a merchant, for example, to refuse to serve gay customers.

Despite the uproar in Indiana, the Arkansas state legislature passed a similar religious freedom bill on Tuesday. And North Carolina Republicans are considering doing the same, though House Speaker Tim Moore is hesitating, saying he wants to assess how such a law might affect North Carolina’s “brand.”

Spurred by Phil Berger, Senate president pro tem, the GOP is playing the same game in considering a bill that would allow magistrates and registers of deeds with religious objections to opt out of doing their duty for gay or lesbian couples who wish to marry. Defenders of the proposal say it’s merely to protect the religious freedom of those officials.

In fact, it’s designed to discourage gay marriage, which a number of appellate federal courts, including the Fourth Circuit that has jurisdiction over North Carolina, have upheld as constitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide the constitutionality of gay marriage within months. That makes the proposal in North Carolina ludicrous, a petulant pout from Republicans who want to grant some public officials the right not to do their jobs. In fact, magistrates and registers of deeds who don’t believe gay people should marry have religious freedom. If they don’t want to fulfill their duties, they can resign.

Indiana’s law will soon be amended, as even the most hard-right lawmakers understand that if their state becomes a symbol of intolerance, businesses the state wants and needs may flee, and others are less likely to come. Cook, the Apple CEO, attacked the law in a Washington Post article reprinted Tuesday in The News & Observer. And other business leaders have objected to the law as well. A rock band nixed a scheduled show in the state.

Until the law is changed, that trend is going to continue, which is why Pence suddenly decided he wanted the law “clarified.”

North Carolina’s GOP leaders ought to learn a lesson here and ditch their ridiculous idea on the anti-gay marriage measure. Unless, of course, they’d like to drive away the new businesses and the jobs they claim to covet and become the next Indiana.

Other states have passed similar laws, and Indiana’s self-inflicted problem may well stir the consciences of business leaders toward those other states.

The passage of such laws shows conservative lawmakers are out of touch with the changing world in which they and gay people and lesbian people and black people and white people and mixed-race people live.

They simply don’t understand that a clear majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage, as do 45 percent of Republicans, according to the General Social Survey, a comprehensive and widely respected measure of of attitudes. Most Americans don’t view it as a threat to society, and they don’t believe public officials, or private merchants, should be given the right to discriminate against anyone based on sexual orientation any more than they should be able to discriminate based on race.

This is a wrong fight. And if businesses make good on their commitment to equality and fairness in the treatment of employees, it could be an expensive fight.