House Financial Services Cmte Holds Hearing On Impact Of Dodd-Frank Act
Former House Financial Services Committee chairman Barney Frank (D-MA) testifies before the House Financial Services Committee July 23, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Win McNamee—Getty Images

First Openly Gay Congressman Says 'Prejudice Is Alive and Well' in Indiana

Apr 01, 2015

The first openly gay member of Congress said Indiana's controversial new religious freedom law sends a clear message that the state discriminates, and that he now regrets his role in passing a federal law that has been used to justify similar state laws sweeping the country.

“It’s a statement by the state: 'Prejudice is alive and well in our state,'" former Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Barney Frank said in an interview with TIME.

Frank spoke to TIME on Tuesday after Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, bowing to days of criticism from business leaders, gay rights groups and others, urged state lawmakers to clarify that the measure doesn't allow businesses to discriminate against gay customers or anyone else. He said Pence's comments that the law was never meant to discriminate were undermined by statements from supporters of the law who had raised the prospect of it allowing businesses to refuse services for same-sex weddings.

MORE: Uproar Over Religious Freedom Law Trips Up Indiana Governor

"He said the law that was passed—which was specifically to allow people to discriminate against gay people—does not allow you to discriminate against gay people," Frank said. "If that were in fact the case, there wouldn’t have been any law."

And he expressed dismay that a federal law signed in the 1990s by then-President Bill Clinton with his support, which initially came about to protect the religious practice of Native Americans using the illegal drug peyote for ceremonial purposes, was being used for political cover by Pence and Republicans pushing similar measures elsewhere. That bill was intended as a “shield for people for their own religious practices,” he said, not as a “sword” used to discriminate. “I now believe that the federal version... was overly drawn, and that people were not thinking about the extent to which it would be an exception to any discrimination laws. I’d like to go back and redo some of the federal law. A number of us did not pay sufficient attention to it.”

Pence signed the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law last Thursday, igniting a national firestorm and shining a spotlight on his state's capital just days before it hosts the NCAA Final Four tournament. Critics of the law argue it's an open door for discrimination, while some proponents including Pence say it is simply meant to protect religious liberty from government overreach and doesn't allow any form of discrimination. Hours after Pence bemoaned “mischaracterizations” of the law and acknowledged being "taken aback" by the uproar, Arkansas lawmakers gave final approval to a similar measure.

“I abhor discrimination,” Pence told reporters Tuesday. “This law does not give anyone a license to deny services to gay and lesbian couples.”

Frank, who served in Congress from 1981 to 2013, said he, too, was surprised by the intensity of the backlash: “I have said for years that I’ve continually been surprised by how fast we are progressing in defeating anti-LGBT prejudice.”

“He’s not a Tea Party guy—I served with him in the House—he was one of the more conservative members,” Frank said of Pence, who hasn't ruled out a campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.“But I think in this case he is suffering from a severe case of cultural lag. You know, a few years ago this would have been acceptable.”

Read next: Miley Cyrus Says Indiana's Religious Freedom Law Supporters 'Are Dinosaurs, and They Are Dying Off'

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Silent No More: Early Days in the Fight for Gay Rights

In commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, militants this year designated the last week in June as Gay Liberation Week and celebrated with a candlelight parade. The parade involved 300 male and female homosexuals, who marched without incident two miles from Gay Activists headquarters to a park near City Hall.
Caption from LIFE In commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, militants this year designated the last week in June as Gay Liberation Week and celebrated with a candlelight parade. The parade involved 300 male and female homosexuals, who marched without incident two miles from Gay Activists headquarters to a park near City Hall.Grey Villet—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
In commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, militants this year designated the last week in June as Gay Liberation Week and celebrated with a candlelight parade. The parade involved 300 male and female homosexuals, who marched without incident two miles from Gay Activists headquarters to a park near City Hall.
When a bill guaranteeing equal job opportunities for homosexuals stalled in New York City Council last spring, militants demonstrated at City Hall. With fists raised, they shout a football style "Gay Power" cheer at police blocking the building.
Gay rights protest, 1971.
A homosexual activist steps between a pair of police horses to be interviewed during a New York demonstration. Militants often charge police brutality and welcome arrest for the sake of publicity. They also encourage press coverage of their protest actions.
Gay rights protest, 1971.
Gay rights protest, California, 1971.
Gay rights protest, New York, 1971.
Collared by a patrolman after he deliberately crossed police barricades at New York's City Hall, Gay Activists Alliance President Jim Owles submits to arrest. Members of his organization were protesting City Council reluctance to debate a fair employment bill for homosexuals.
Gay rights protest, New York, 1971.
Gay rights protest, New York, 1971.
Gay rights protest, New York, 1971.
Gay Pride, 1971.
Gay Activists Alliance, New York, 1971.
Gay rights rally, 1971.
Gay rights event, 1971.
Caption from LIFE In commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, militants this year designated the
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Grey Villet—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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