Indiana Gov. Mike Pence on Thursday signed into law a religious objections bill that some convention organizers and business leaders have opposed amid concern it could allow discrimination against gay people

At least two groups — the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Gen Con — have said they would reconsider plans to hold their conventions in Indianapolis because of the legislation. The CEO of California technology company Salesforce told the Indianapolis Business Journal his company would reduce its investment in the state because of the law.

Supporters say discrimination concerns are overblown and that the Indiana measure merely seeks to prevent the government from compelling people to provide such things as catering or photography for same-sex weddings or other activities they find objectionable on religious grounds. They note that the law is modeled after a federal religious freedom law Congress passed in 1993 and similar laws are on the books in 19 states.

***

“There has been a lot of misunderstanding about this bill,” Pence said. “This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way I would’ve vetoed it.”…

Pence pointed out that President Barack Obama voted in favor of a similar state law while he was an Illinois legislator. But when Pence was asked whether he would support matching Illinois by adding sexual orientation to the state’s civil rights law, he responded: “That’s not on my agenda. I won’t be pursuing that.”

***

“These bills are often incredibly vague and light on details — usually intentionally. In practice, most of these bills could empower any individual to sue the government to attempt to end enforcement of a non-discrimination law,” wrote the LGBT equality group in a report. “The evangelical owner of a business providing a secular service can sue claiming that their personal faith empowers them to refuse to hire Jews, divorcees, or LGBT people. A landlord could claim the right to refuse to rent an apartment to a Muslim or a transgender person.”

In a statement Thursday, HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow said the Indiana General Assembly and Pence have sent a message saying, “as long as your religion tells you to, it’s ok to discriminate against people despite what the law says.”

***

NCAA President Mark Emmert expressed concern Thursday about Indiana’s “religious freedom” law, saying the Indianapolis-based group would examine “how it might affect future events as well as our workforce.”

“The NCAA national office and our members are deeply committed to providing an inclusive environment for all our events,” Emmert’s statement said. “We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees.

“We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week’s men’s Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill.

***

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act essentially legalizes discrimination and gives the ability for businesses to choose who they provide goods and services too. Hate Jews? In Indiana, you don’t have to serve them. Feel uncomfortable about homosexuality? Indiana is the place for you, where you can bury your head and pretend it doesn’t exist.

As the son of parents who survived the Holocaust (and the grandson of some who didn’t) this feels very much like a prelude to another Kristallnacht.

***

Religious liberty isn’t an absolute right. Religious liberty doesn’t always trump. Religious liberty is balanced with concerns for a compelling state interest that’s being pursued in the least-restrictive means possible.

But it isn’t clear that forcing every photographer and every baker and every florist to help celebrate same-sex weddings is advancing a compelling state interest in the least-restrictive way possible. Protecting religious liberty and the rights of conscience doesn’t infringe on anyone’s sexual freedoms.

No one has the right to have the government force a particular minister to marry them, or a certain photographer to capture the first kiss or a baker to bake the wedding cake. Declining to perform these services doesn’t violate anyone’s sexual freedoms…

A robust conception of religious liberty provides every person the freedom to seek the truth, form beliefs, and live according to the dictates of his or her conscience—whether at home, in worship or at work.

***

“The hysteria over this law is so unjustified,” said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia and a prominent defender of so-called religious freedom laws.

“It’s not about discriminating against gays in general or across the board,” Mr. Laycock said of the Indiana law. “It’s about not being involved in a ceremony that you believe is inherently religious.”

[Hillary] Clinton, a likely Democratic candidate for president, denounced it in a message on Twitter on Thursday night. “Sad this new Indiana law can happen in America today,” she said, adding that Americans should not discriminate against people because of “who they love.”

***

***

The bill in Indiana doesn’t mention words like “gay” at all. It merely says that the government can’t “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.” And a key element of the conservative Christian argument about religious freedom is that “exercise” of religion isn’t just about rituals and prayer and worship; it extends to everything, including commerce.

The implications are therefore enormous. Forget about the baker — what if you own a restaurant and think homosexuality is an abomination, and therefore you want to hang a “No gays allowed” sign in your window? Under this law, you’d be able to. Or what if you’re a Muslim who owns an auto repair shop, and you want to refuse to serve women, because you say your religion tells you that women shouldn’t drive?…

The more news this Indiana law gets, the more likely it is that it will become an issue in the presidential primaries. And it fits neatly within the key divide among Republicans: on one side you could have business groups that are nervous about negative economic impacts and strategists who don’t want the GOP to be known as the party of discrimination, while on the other side you have candidates eager for the votes of religious right primary voters.

***

The bill has sparked intense backlash online, but it’s won a very important fan for Pence: Bob Vander Plaats, the noted Iowa-caucus kingmaker who heads up the FAMiLY Leader, a socially conservative group that exercises notable political influence in the critical primary-campaign state.

“I think it definitely boosts his credibility, not just with a group like ours, but for any freedom-loving American who wants to have a full-spectrum conservative in the White House,” Vander Plaats told ABC News…

“Gov. Pence, he did a great job signing that legislation, and I truly believe this will be a big issue in the 2016 race, the idea of religious freedom,” Vander Plaats said.

***

Indiana is actually soon to be just one of 20 states with a version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures…

A federal RFRA signed by President Clinton in 1993 shares language with Indiana and other states’ bills, prohibiting the government from “substantially burdening” individuals’ exercise of religion unless it is for a “compelling government interest” and is doing so in the least restrictive means…

Pence has begun to feel the fallout from his decision. But while Indiana is being criticized, the NCAA didn’t say it was concerned over how athletes and employees would be affected by Kentucky’s RFRA when games were played there last week, there aren’t any plans to boycott states like Illinois or Connecticut, and Miley Cyrus has yet to post a photo of President Clinton or any of the 19 other governors who have also signed RFRAs.

***

The “controversial” Indiana law, which passed with a wide margin, has provoked the sort of over-the-top dismay you’d expect from certain quarters. The Left has one construct for political debate these days: forward-looking, open-minded lovers of diversity versus bigots. This is the crudest but most effective case to make to the public. It appeals to good will of people. It’s also the most unintellectual and misleading. You will remember Ron Fournier likening evangelical florists concerned with their faith to people who fought to bar young black girls from going to public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas? It’s a brand of historically illiterate, morally obnoxious, and histrionic accusation that tells us there’s almost certainly not going to be any thoughtful debate on the matter…

So by any standard the law concerns itself with religious freedom, not “religious freedom.” There may strong substantive legal arguments against it, I don’t know. Even if you disagree with how far these protections should go, this sort of legislation was precipitated by genuine concerns. There is a conflict emerging in a country, where newly carved-out rights crash against the traditional rights of others. There is a large contingent in American politics that values coercing conformity over the First Amendment. That should be as offensive as bigotry. The evangelical in Colorado lost something real because of his faith, why while the gay couple would have lost nothing by taking their business down the block.

I believe gay marriage should be legal. I don’t believe—and I imagine I’m not alone—that forcing a shopkeep to a bake cake for your gay wedding (or lose his business) should supersede one of the most fundamental rights offered in a genuinely liberal nation. And, let’s be honest, the latter is exactly what some people in the gay political community are trying to accomplish. This is a legitimate concern and, as things stands, probably one of most consequential debates about our future. No quotations marks needed.

***