Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, said Indiana governor Mike Pence was “unprepared” for the backlash to the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act but defended the law as a necessary safeguard for religious liberty.
“Mike was, I think, unprepared for what came to Indiana as a result of this,” said Perkins in an interview for C-SPAN’s Newsmakers program.
The RFRA law, which mirrors both a federal law and laws in about 20 other states, passed the state legislature in Indiana and was signed by Pence, a Republican, last week. Opponents have claimed the law gives individuals and businesses the right to discriminate against gays and lesbians, and as the issue has gained national attention, several corporate leaders have called on Indiana to repeal the law.
Perkins, a leading voice among social conservatives, says the media have mischaracterized the law, but he added that conservative leaders should offer “forceful” defenses of RFRA and religious freedom in general.
“A lot of it comes down to the leadership, quite frankly, as to whether or not they’re going to be forceful in standing in defense of religious freedom,” Perkins said.
Perkins argued the issue of religious freedom will be a “major discussion item” in the 2016 presidential cycle, and one that will benefit the GOP. A number of likely Republican presidential candidates have said they support the Indiana RFRA.
The controversy intensified on Sunday when Pence stumbled in an interview with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos, with the Republican struggling to answer questions about whether or not the law allowed for discrimination. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed and a televised press conference two days later, Pence clarified the law did not give Hoosiers “license to discriminate” against anyone but that he would request the Indiana legislature pass a clarification of the law along these lines. In the interview with C-SPAN, Perkins insisted the law as originally passed did not allow for discrimination.
“This is an accommodation. This is to allow someone to make a defense. It’s not automatic,” Perkins said. “Government should not be a party to forcing speech and forcing people to engage in activities that violate their beliefs. And that’s simply what RFRA is.”
Asked about what Pence could have done differently to make the case for the RFRA law, Perkins said, “I think he could have just said what I said.”
The Indiana law and another similar act in Arkansas have received criticism from many corporate leaders, including Apple CEO Tim Cook as well as companies like Angie’s List and Salesforce. Arkansas-based Walmart has lobbied hard against that state’s RFRA legislation. Perkins suggested the alliance between corporate America and social liberals would be bad for business.
“They’re doing so at their own peril. I don’t think they’re thinking this all the way through when they’re siding with the left on social policy,” he said. “Once Walmart and companies like that begin alienating their base that shops in their stores throughout the course of the week who also go to church on Sunday, I think Walmart may be rethinking their jumping in on these social issues such as this."