TIME

Why Religious Freedom Bills Could Be Great for Gay Rights

Demonstrators gather to protest a controversial religious freedom bill recently signed by Governor Mike Pence, during a rally at Monument Circle in Indianapolis on March 28, 2015.
Nate Chute—Reuters Demonstrators gather to protest a controversial religious freedom bill recently signed by Governor Mike Pence, during a rally at Monument Circle in Indianapolis on March 28, 2015.

"Anyone involved in social change has often had to take something that looked pretty bleak and turn it into an opportunity"

Opponents of the religious freedom laws recently passed in Arkansas and Indiana criticized the measures as a license to discriminate against LGBT people, but the battle over the bills may come to benefit the very people who led the charge against them.

Suddenly, a community that has been unsuccessfully championing LGBT non-discrimination measures for decades has the nation’s attention. A civil rights movement needs an outraged public to enact reform, and this fight —from grassroots protests against the bills to disapproving tweets from Walmart executives—generated plenty of it. Gay rights advocates strategically used the showdown as a megaphone to decry the absence of discrimination protections for LGBT people in many states. While nearly 90% of people believe that it’s already illegal to discriminate against gay and transgender people, there are no such laws in the majority of the United States.

On Thursday, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence approved changes to the state’s newly passed religious freedom law that make it clear the measure can’t be used to discriminate, but his opponents are taking this opportunity to push for more—demanding that Indiana become not just the 20th state to pass a religious freedom act but also the 20th to pass comprehensive non-discrimination protections for LGBT residents.

“Anyone involved in social change has often had to take something that looked pretty bleak and turn it into an opportunity,” says Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). “And you better believe that everyone who believes in justice is going to keep making a way out of no way. And this is another one of those moments. Let’s let people know what the stakes really are.”

This silver lining may have already sparked change in Florida, where gay rights advocates have long been pushing a non-discrimination bill that would protect LGBT people in the realms of employment, housing and public accommodations. For nearly a decade, the bill has been filed each year without coming up for a vote, says Carlos Guillermo Smith of Equality Florida. His group has built a coalition of more than 300 businesses who support the measure—including prominent companies like Walt Disney World and the Miami Heat—but that hasn’t moved the needle. Now, in the wake of Indiana, Smith says it looks like the bill may finally get taken up by a committee next week.

“It’ll be the first hearing we have had on the issue, ever,” says Smith.

In Pennsylvania, advocates preparing to introduce a non-discrimination measure in the next two weeks have used the fallout in Indiana to highlight the potential economic costs to Republican lawmakers. Companies have halted expansion in the Hoosier State, lucrative conferences have threatened to convene elsewhere and recruiters tasked with luring executives to the area are worried about companies already there choosing to relocate.

“It’s the severity of the backlash,” says Equality Pennsylvania’s Ted Martin, “that really and truly serves as an example that discrimination is just not the way to move a state forward economically. I think the leadership in our capitol will pay attention to that.”

This is already the tack that many LGBT advocates have been taking, concentrating on the dollars-and-cents arguments instead of just acceptance-and-tolerance. In Florida, the non-discrimination bill is pointedly named the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, positioned as a way to attract the broadest range of the best talent. What’s happening in Indiana, Smith says, “is making the argument for us.”

Some worry that support for non-discrimination measures will be hard to drum up, partly because the realm of marriage equality has been a double-edged sword for LGBT Americans. As the Supreme Court appears poised to make same-sex marriage the law of the land, advocates are ready to celebrate securing a right with enormous emotional and practical importance. At the same time, says Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, “The concern has always been that we might make the mistakes of every other civil rights or human rights struggle. Women win the right to vote and mistake that for full equality. Brown v. Board of Education rules that segregation is unlawful, and there’s a mistaken notion that somehow we’ve won the war on racism and bigotry.”

The fear, she says, is that casual supporters of gay rights would get the impression that the work is finished, brush off their hands, put away their pocketbooks and go home. “The notion that we’re done is something that we’re fighting,” Kendell told TIME in 2014. The fight in Indiana has made it clear that the war is not over. It has also demonstrated to the likes of Kendell that they have wells of support that are bigger than they realized, as everyone from the NCAA to Angie’s List balked at the law. “We have seen a cascade of support for basic, fair treatment for LGBT people in the public square that I could never have imagined,” Kendell says. “I want to bottle this lightning.”

While the national conversation has focused on the theoretical same-sex couple seeking a hypothetical cake from a traditionalist baker, Sarah McBride of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, says that the controversy has been an opportunity to point out that the LGBT discrimination is not only real but that the vast majority is more “life-altering” than having to seek out a second pastry shop. “The economic numbers don’t lie,” she says, noting that LGBT Americans experience higher levels of poverty, homelessness and unemployment than the general population. A report she authored in 2014 found that 27% of LGBT people have experienced “inappropriate treatment” or hostility in a place of public accommodation like a shop or restaurant.

McBride says that another difficulty that comes along with wins for marriage equality is that there are more opportunities for discrimination. Heartened by court rulings, people are more willing to come out of the closet and may even be forced to effectively out themselves at work when, for the first time, they’re filling out paperwork to add a same-sex spouse to their health insurance policy. Those are opportunities to encounter backlash that didn’t exist before, she says. A favorite rhetorical example among such advocates is that in several states, a lesbian could now be married on Sunday and fired for being gay on Monday, left with only patchy and confusing legal recourse. “The confusion around the legal landscape needs to be clarified,” McBride says. “That’s why there needs to be a comprehensive federal response.”

Members of Congress have tried and failed to pass non-discrimination legislation that would protect LGBT people in employment nearly every session since 1994. In a “historic” 2013 vote, the Democrat-controlled Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA. Then the Republican-controlled House didn’t take it up. Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, said in late 2014 that rather than fight the same fight again, he plans to go bigger: introducing sweeping legislation that covers not only employment but housing and public accommodations. And the controversy over religious freedom restoration bills—which are still pending in six states beyond Indiana—may help jump start a measure that has stalled so many times. It will need a jolt for a GOP-controlled Congress to consider taking it up.

“Senator Merkley’s hope is that with the news out of Indiana and Arkansas we can finally get the support we need to get LGBT Americans the rights they deserve,” a spokesperson for Merkley tells TIME.

In some ways, fighting for marriage equality is an easier task for gay rights supporters than fighting for LGBT non-discrimination bills. Part of it is Americans’ widespread belief that those protections are already in place and confusion about what legal options LGBT people have if they’re fired from a job for being gay or transgender, while it has always been obvious and indisputable where same-sex marriage was not legal and what that meant. A lack of marriage rights is a straightforward issue, while discrimination isn’t always easy for outsiders to see, says Jenny Pizer of Lambda Legal. “Non-discrimination is proactive and not reactive,” Pizer says. “That is a different kind of social change process.”

But the religious freedom bills, which have been considered in more than a dozen states so far in 2015, could change that. McBride says such incendiary proposals may prove the “tangible” means of activating support for their cause, just like constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage provided them a target at which to aim when fighting for marriage equality.

People like Smith will be watching closely to see whether backlash against the new religious freedom law is indeed enough to boomerang the state legislature beyond fixes to passing stand-alone non-discrimination legislation. That would be a telling lesson in a state run by a politician who once declared that he opposes “any effort to recognize homosexual’s [sic] as a discreet [sic] and insular minority’ entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws similar to those extended to women and ethnic minorities.”

“Their version of our bill is still in the works,” Smith says. “If we can’t even get that in Indiana, then I don’t know if we’ll be able to get it in Florida.” But if Smith’s team does get their hearing next week, you can count on them pointing a lot of fingers in a northwesterly direction.

TIME Boy Scouts

New York Boy Scout Group Hires Nation’s First Gay Eagle Scout

Pascal Tessier smiles at a meeting where he received his Eagle Scout badge in Chevy Chase, Md on April 2, 2015.
Luis M. Alvarez—AP Pascal Tessier smiles at a meeting where he received his Eagle Scout badge in Chevy Chase, Md on April 2, 2015.

It's a direct and public challenge to the national scouting organization's ban on openly gay adult members

The Boy Scouts’ New York chapter said Thursday that it has hired the nation’s first openly gay Eagle Scout as a summer camp leader, a direct and public challenge to the national scouting organization’s ban on openly gay adult members.

The Boy Scouts’ national spokesman, Deron Smith, said there was no change in that national policy, which has been highly divisive. As for any further response to the New York announcement, Smith said, “We are looking into this matter.”

The challenge to the national headquarters was laid down by the Boy Scouts’ Greater New York Councils, which announced the hiring of Pascal Tessier, an 18-year-old Eagle Scout. Tessier has been a vocal advocate of opening the 105-year-old organization to gay scouts and leaders.

“We received this application from this young man, and we found him highly qualified on all the merits,” board member Richard G. Mason said by phone. The New York group, like some other local scouting councils, has said before that it is open to gay employees.

“We have an anti-discrimination policy, we believe in it very firmly, and we are executing on it,” Mason said.

The national organization changed its policy in 2013 to allow openly gay youth as scouts, but not adults as leaders, after a bitter debate over its membership policy. The change took effect in January 2014.

Advocates for letting gays participate in scouting hailed Tessier’s hire.

“This is a watershed moment,” Zach Wahls, executive director of Scouts for Equality, said in a statement. “We are proud to see such an important Boy Scout council standing up for the full inclusion of gay members.”

When the national Boy Scouts began allowing gay boys as scouts, liberal Scout leaders and gay rights groups celebrated the shift but called for allowing gay adults to participate, too. Conservatives involved with the Scouts, including some churches that sponsor troops, decried letting any gays — including kids — participate. Some defected when the ban on gay youth was lifted.

The Boy Scouts of America has said it doesn’t “proactively inquire” about members’ sexual orientation — in effect, a form of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But it has expelled adults who were open about it, including a gay troop leader in Seattle who was removed last year after he disclosed his orientation during a TV interview.

While some other local Boy Scout councils also have let it be known they are accepting of openly gay employees, the 103-year-old New York councils’ move presents an unusually acute departure from the national policy. Wahls said it was the first case he was aware of that a council publicly acknowledged that one of its adult staffers was gay.

The New York councils serve more than 46,000 young people, in both boys’ scout troops and other programs, such as pre-professional “explorer” initiatives; some include girls. About 9,000 boys and girls are expected in its summer camps this year.

Tessier achieved scouting’s highest rank last year after being one of the most prominent openly gay scouts speaking out to change the ban on gay participation.

The Kensington, Maryland, teen said then he was relieved finally to have his Eagle badge approved by the Scouts’ national headquarters in Irving, Texas.

“Even if I had been kicked out along the way, I wouldn’t have changed anything,” he said. “The whole experience was something worth having, not only for myself but also for all the other people involved — and for all the people it affects.”

 

TIME States

How Gay Rights Won in Indiana

Demonstrators gather to protest a controversial religious freedom bill recently signed by Governor Mike Pence, during a rally at Monument Circle in Indianapolis on March 28, 2015.
Nate Chute—Reuters Demonstrators gather to protest a controversial religious freedom bill recently signed by Governor Mike Pence, during a rally at Monument Circle in Indianapolis on March 28, 2015.

Liberal activists and big business joined forces and humbled a governor

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence approved changes by lawmakers to a controversial state law on religious freedom Thursday, essentially conceding defeat to a concerted alliance of liberal interest groups and large corporations over gay rights.

The new version of the law clarifies that it will not allow businesses to discriminate against gay Hoosiers, a fix that Republican backers and Pence had once argued was not necessary. Both chambers of Indiana’s legislature passed the changes to the law on Thursday, sending it to Pence for final approval. Some lawmakers said the changes still weren’t necessary from a legal standpoint, but were needed in order to stem a national uproar over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“The change in the RFRA law will hopefully put an end to the greatest misperception of all: that Indiana’s people discriminate, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Senate President Pro Tempore David Long.

But gay rights groups point out that the changes only stop discrimination that might have happened as a result of the religious freedom law. No Indiana state law explicitly bars businesses from discriminating against gay customers.

After signing the clarification bill, Pence released a statement and posted a series of tweets that announced he had done so and hoped the state could move forward.

“There will be some who think this legislation goes too far and some who think it does not go far enough,” he said, “but as governor I must always put the interest of our state first and ask myself every day, ‘What is best for Indiana?’ I believe resolving this controversy and making clear that every person feels welcome and respected in our state is best for Indiana.”

Still, the quick turnaround on the law in a Republican-led red state showed a sea change on how gay rights fights play out. The fix was the outcome of 48 hours of intense negotiations as lawmakers tried to quell concerns from companies such as Apple, American Airlines and Salesforce, as well as the NCAA college sports league and a bevy of celebrities.

But while the national fight over the bill lasted a few short days, left-leaning groups in Indiana had been laying the groundwork for months. The Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal and others began working with friendly Indiana lawmakers and businesses late last year, sowing the seeds of grassroots opposition as rumors of a religious freedom bill began circulating.

Without the close alliance between big Indiana businesses and liberal activists, the national outcry this week over Indiana’s new law could have been just a muffled whimper.

“This was a moment years in the making,” says Fred Sainz, vice president for the Human Rights Campaign. “The reason we are able to rely on this level of corporate support now is we’ve cultivated this garden for a long time.”

Opposition Takes Root

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was conceived last year by conservative Indiana lawmakers who sought a bulwark in the culture war over gay rights. A proposed state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman petered out last year, and in October a federal court legalized same-sex marriage.

By Thanksgiving, whispers about a religious freedom bill began surfacing in Indianapolis. Lambda Legal, the national gay rights group, got a tip from a friendly legislator in the Indiana House that a bill was in the works and alerted friendly groups and businesses. Word got out that a bill was going to be completed in January, and by the end of the month, it was filed.

MORE: Uproar Over Religious Freedom Law Trips Up Indiana’s Governor

Civil rights groups primed Indiana businesses for a fight. Cummins, a major diesel and gas engine manufacturer in the state, was an early opponent of the bill. After consulting with activist groups before Christmas, the $19-billion company deployed two in-house lobbyists to try to sway Indiana state legislators against the bill. The company also used an outside lobbying firm, Krieg DeVault, to help lobby the general assembly. Activists notified Indiana companies such as Salesforce, Eli Lilly and Alcoa of the bill, who also put pressure on legislators. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which represents the state’s businesses interests in the state capitol, opposed the bill, as did its Indianapolis equivalent.

“The bill has been brewing since gay marriage become legal in October,” says Jim Bennett, Midwest director for Lambda Legal. “We’ve all been able to stay close together throughout this fight going back to the beginning.”

In early March, the Indiana Senate passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act along party lines. The ACLU, the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal and the American Unity Fund banded together into a group called Freedom Indiana to better coordinate opposition to the law.

Business groups scored a legislative win late in the process when they convinced the Indiana House to add an amendment that protected corporations from religiously fueled employee lawsuits. But they were unable to prevent the passage of the final bill through the general assembly.

Harsh Spotlight

The carefully tended tinder of opposition erupted into a national firestorm when Pence signed the bill into law last Thursday.

Apple’s openly gay CEO Tim Cook, whom civil rights groups had been privately courting as a key civil rights ally, tweeted his opposition. The NCAA denounced the measure as well, and additional businesses signed on to a critical letter addressed to Pence, including Internet company Angie’s List and healthcare company Roche Diagnostics. On Monday, the Indianapolis Star featured a rare front-page editorial. “FIX THIS NOW,” the headline screamed in huge letters. “Indiana is in a state of crisis,” the editors warned the governor. “It is worse than you seem to understand.”

Beset on all sides, Pence sounded the retreat on Tuesday, urging lawmakers to fix the law. “After much reflection and consultation with the leadership of the General Assembly, I’ve come to the conclusion it would be helpful to move legislation this week that makes it clear this law does not give businesses the right to deny services to anyone,” Pence said in a news conference.

MORE: 5 things to Know About Mike Pence

Even as Indiana scrambled to amend the law, the Human Rights Campaign diligently worked its corporate contacts. The group released a statement on Tuesday signed by American Airlines, Microsoft, Wells Fargo and six other major businesses that denounced similar efforts around the country. Meanwhile, left-leaning activists clamored for language that would protect LGBT Hoosiers, and lobbyists for the manufacturing, healthcare and tourism industries complained the law was bad for business. Many rank-and-file Republicans staunchly stood by the old bill as party leaders rallied their caucuses.

By Tuesday evening, the rhetoric had reached a feverish pitch. “The business and civic leaders were telling legislators yesterday that the financial impact to the city of Indy would be similar to Katrina,” said one Indiana business leader on Tuesday. “Today, they are saying it’s more like Pompeii.”

Conservatives insisted the outburst against the law was overblown and blamed the erosion of the law on outlier groups. Evangelical leader Rev. Franklin Graham wrote in a Facebook post that liberal groups “don’t want Christians’ freedoms to be protected.” Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich called the response a “lynch mob.”

Wednesday saw intensive meetings with Pence, House Speaker Brian Bosma and Long, the Senate leader, as well as sport and business leaders and lobbyists. The Star reported that Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Mark Miles, Indy Chamber Vice President Mark Fisher and a representative from tech company Salesforce were also involved in meetings.

A new version of the bill had coalesced by Thursday. “The message is clear today,” said Bosma. “It’s coming from Democrats, Republicans, corporate leaders, and community leaders, that Indiana is open for business to people of all stripes, and we discriminate against no one.”

The concerted opposition to the Indiana bill is likely to serve as a warning to other states. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchison of Arkansas declined to sign a similar bill Wednesday after opposition from Walmart and others, while Republican Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina said he would oppose any similar legislation.

Pence has professed that the hostility to the law shocked him. “Was I expecting this kind of backlash? Heavens, no,” he said.

Whatever else happens after this week, other governors won’t be able to make the same claim.

Read next: Real Progressives Should Support Indiana’s Law

TIME Indiana

Indiana’s ‘No Gay Wedding’ Pizzeria Has Closed

"We’re in hiding basically," says co-owner Crystal O’Connor

An Indiana pizzeria remained closed on Wednesday, embroiled in a national debate after its owners said they would not cater gay weddings because of their religious beliefs.

“I don’t know if we will reopen, or if we can, if it’s safe to reopen,” co-owner Crystal O’Connor told TheBlaze TV. “We’re in hiding basically, staying in the house.”

The Walkerton, Ind., pizza parlor is the first business since Indiana passed the highly controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act to publicly cite religious beliefs as justification to refuse a service to the LGBT community.

The owners said they would serve anybody who came into the restaurant regardless of sexual orientation, but drew the line at weddings. “If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no. We are a Christian establishment,” O’Connor told local news outlet WBND-TV Tuesday evening.

The comments sparked social-media uproar, and the company’s Yelp page has been flooded with angry comments. Someone went so far as to buy the domain name www.memoriespizza.com to post a message against discrimination.

At the same time, people who support the owners’ stance have started a GoFundMe campaign aiming to “relieve the financial loss endured by the proprietors’ stand for faith.” The campaign has raised nearly $50,000 so far.

Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act is a law prohibiting the government from infringing on the religious beliefs of a business, organization or person. Critics of the bill say it can be used to justify discrimination against the LGBT community.

TIME States

Arkansas Governor Asks for Changes to Controversial Religious Freedom Bill

His own son signed a petition against it

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called Wednesday for the state legislature to make changes to a religious freedom bill that prompted an angry outcry from prominent businesses and activists who say it could lead to discrimination against gays.

“I’ve asked the leaders of the General Assembly to recall the bill so that it can be amended,” Hutchinson, a Republican, announced in a news conference Wednesday morning.

Hutchinson had promised last week to sign the bill into law when it reached his desk, and on Tuesday the Arkansas state House affixed its final approval to the measure. But as a backlash over a similar bill built against Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Hutchinson reconsidered his decision.

MORE: Uproar Over Religious Freedom Law Trips Up Indiana Governor

Noting that his own son signed a petition urging a veto, Hutchinson urged the Arkansas state legislature to tweak the language of the statute to make it mirror the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed into law with bipartisan support by then-President Clinton.

“This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial. But these are not ordinary times,” Hutchinson said.

Pressure had mounted on Hutchinson to reject the legislation, as powerful corporations publicly exhorted the Republican governor to reverse his decision. On Tuesday evening, the Arkansas-based retail giant Walmart posted a statement on Twitter arguing the bill undermined the state’s “spirit of inclusion” and asking Hutchinson to veto it.

“My responsibility is to speak out on my own convictions,” Hutchinson said, “and to do what I can, as governor, to make sure this bill reflects the values of the people of Arkansas, protects those of religious conscience. But also, minimizes the chance of discrimination in the workplace.”

TIME States

NASCAR ‘Disappointed’ in Indiana’s Religious Freedom Law

The sports league joins a growing chorus of critics

NASCAR says it is disappointed by the passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics say could be used to discriminate against gay people.

“We will not embrace nor participate in exclusion or intolerance,” NASCAR said in a statement issued to NBC Sports. “We are committed to diversity and inclusion within our sport and therefore will continue to welcome all competitors and fans at our events in the state of Indiana and anywhere else we race.”

The law, which backers say is supposed to ensure religious freedom for people in the state, has come under fire from both gay rights advocates who feel it could be used to deny service to gay people and corporations who fear the law could hurt businesses in Indiana if the state gains an anti-gay stigma. Other sports organizations, such as the NCAA, have also expressed concern over the new law, as have prominent businesspeople such as Apple CEO Tim Cook.

At a Tuesday press conference Indiana Governor Mike Pence said he would push lawmakers to amend the law so that it explicitly states that businesses can’t use it to discriminate against anyone.

TIME 2016 Election

Indiana Religious-Freedom Law Emerges as 2016 Republican Litmus Test

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence holds a news conference at the Statehouse in Indianapolis on March 26, 2015.
Michael Conroy–AP Indiana Gov. Mike Pence holds a news conference at the Statehouse in Indianapolis on March 26, 2015.

GOP presidential hopefuls race to the defense of Indiana Governor Mike Pence

The deepening controversy over Indiana’s new religious-freedom law became a litmus test for the 2016 GOP primary field on Monday, as a host of presidential hopefuls leaped to the defense of embattled Hoosier State Governor Mike Pence for signing the statute.

Likely Republican candidates Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum — as well as newly declared candidate Ted Cruz — each defended Pence for supporting Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which has drawn sharp criticism from civic and business leaders across the country and reignited a debate within the GOP about how the party should handle divisive social issues.

The Republican contenders who weighed in sided with Pence, who party strategists say could still emerge as a White House contender himself. The cascade of support was a clear sign of the importance of the issue for the party’s social conservatives, who have increasingly rallied behind the cause as voters and the courts moved to legalize same-sex marriage in states around the country.

In an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt Monday evening, Bush said he believes Pence “has done the right thing.”

“I think if they actually got briefed on the law, they wouldn’t be blasting this law,” Bush, the former governor of Florida, said of the law’s critics. “Florida has a law like this. Bill Clinton signed a law like this at the federal level. This is simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs. To be able to be people of conscience. I think once the facts are established, people aren’t going to see this as discriminatory at all.”

Bush said the law is designed to provide protections for people who have religious objections on all issues, including a Washington State case where a florist is being sued for refusing to service a same-sex wedding.

Rubio, a Florida Senator who is expected to announce his candidacy for President in Miami on April 13, said the statute was designed to codify religious protections rather than invite discrimination.

“I think the fundamental question in some of these laws is, Should someone be discriminated against because of their religious views?” Rubio said Monday on Fox News. “No one is saying here that it should be legal to deny someone service at a restaurant or a hotel because of their sexual orientation.”

Cruz, whose candidacy rests on appealing to the GOP’s evangelical base, praised Pence for standing up to critics of the law. “Indiana is giving voice to millions of courageous conservatives across this country who are deeply concerned about the ongoing attacks upon our personal liberties,” he said in a statement. “I’m proud to stand with Mike, and I urge Americans to do the same.”

The controversy surrounding the bill, which Pence signed last week, came to a head over the weekend as Democrats, civic leaders and an array of large businesses — including Indiana companies like Angie’s List and Eli Lilly, as well as powerful tech firms like Apple, Salesforce and Yelp — condemned Pence for signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Critics contend the law would enable discrimination, particularly against LGBT Americans.

Nineteen other U.S. states have enacted versions of the law, which are similar to a federal version that passed Congress with bipartisan support in 1993 and was signed by then President Bill Clinton.

In an op-ed published Monday evening in the Wall Street Journal, Pence argued the law has been “grossly misconstrued” by critics. “If I saw a restaurant owner refuse to serve a gay couple, I wouldn’t eat there anymore,” he wrote. “As governor of Indiana, if I were presented a bill that legalized discrimination against any person or group, I would veto it. Indiana’s new law contains no reference to sexual orientation. It simply mirrors federal law that President Bill Clinton signed in 1993.”

Santorum tweeted his support of Pence, pledging to address it in a scheduled speech at George Washington University. Maryland neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a popular figure among the GOP’s Tea Party wing, also expressed support for the statute.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker took a different tack from his likely GOP primary rivals by declining to immediately back Pence for supporting the legislation. Walker was noncommittal on the law on Monday, saying he doesn’t see a version of the bill making it to his desk in Wisconsin and declining to say whether he would sign it.

“As a matter of principle, Governor Walker believes in broad religious freedom and the right for Americans to exercise their religion and act on their conscience,” said AshLee Strong, press secretary for Walker’s Our American Revival.

Democratic National Committee press secretary Holly Shulman blasted Bush, Rubio and Walker in a statement. “This just confirms what we already know about these three Republican presidential hopefuls, and is the most recent reminder that Republicans are focused on one thing — pursuing an out-of-touch agenda at the expense of everything and everyone else,” she said.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the Indiana law on Twitter last week. But RFRA laws have previously been widely supported by top Democrats, from Clinton’s husband to then Illinois state senator Barack Obama.

TIME Italy

Italian Politician Looks to Highlight Gay Rights by Getting Married in Canada

Nicola Vendola attends the 'Che Tempo Che Fa' Italian TV Show on March 18, 2013, in Milan, Italy.
Stefania D'Alessandro—Getty Images Nicola Vendola attends the Che Tempo Che Fa Italian TV Show on March 18, 2013, in Milan

“From their elevated social rung they don’t really understand what it means to live in a country where homophobia kills"

Nicola Vendola, one of the first openly gay politicians in Italy, has announced his plan to marry his Canadian partner in Canada, as Italy has no current plan to legalize gay marriage.

The 56-year-old LGBT activist, who is also the left-wing representative for the traditionally conservative southern region of Puglia, is giving serious thoughts on starting a family and having children, Agence France-Presse reports.

“Everything is going to change, I’m going to marry Ed,” Vendola said about his partner Eddy Testa.

Although Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has announced plans to allow same-sex civil partnerships, the influential Catholic Church vehemently opposes extending this to nuptials.

Vendola also clashed with Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, Italy’s influential gay fashion-designer duo, who recently drew the wrath of pop legend Elton John by describing children born to gay parents via IVF as “synthetic babies.”

“From their elevated social rung they don’t really understand what it means to live in a country where homophobia kills and the lack of basic rights weighs heavily on many people’s lives,” said Vendola.

[AFP]

TIME 2016 Election

Gay Rights Activists Fire Early Shot At GOP Field

Governor Chris Christie in NH
Rick Friedman—Corbis N.J. Governor Chris Christie speaks at the Concord and Merrimack County GOP's 3rd Annual Lincoln-Reagan Dinner in Concord, N.H. on Feb. 16, 2015.

The Human Rights Campaign is firing an early shot at the emerging presidential field, releasing polling and research highlighting their opposition to same-sex marriage.

On Wednesday, the group unveiled a micro-site highlighting GOP rhetoric on LGBT issues, including their positions on marriage, conversion therapy and bullying. The launch is pegged to this weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference, which has blocked the sponsorship of the GOP gay group Log Cabin Republicans. (Although the group will participate in a panel discussion.)

The group is highlighting the results of a survey it commissioned of 1,000 self-identified LGBT voters showing that few would even consider supporting Republican candidates. Only 15 percent would consider New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; 12 percent, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; 9 percent, Sen. Rand Paul; 9 percent, Sen. Marco Rubio; and 5 percent former Sen. Rick Santorum.

“For those committed to LGBT equality, actions speak louder than words,” said JoDee Winterhof, HRC’s Vice President for Policy and Political Affairs in a statement. “It’s unfortunate that a field with so many Republican candidates is so united against basic LGBT rights, from marriage equality to protecting LGBT Americans from discrimination.”

Among a sub-sample of 120 self-identified Republicans a majority say they would not back either Paul or Santorum, while the remaining candidates poll within the margin of error.

The GOP’s autopsy into the 2012 election found that gay rights issues are a gateway subject for LGBT voters, but also for young voters of all stripes. “We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too,” the Growth and Opportunity Project report stated. But while a number of Republican governors have dropped opposition to same-sex marriage in their states after court rulings, none have personally said they are supportive of such unions. The issue is a litmus test for many conservative voters in Iowa, and is set to be injected into the political debate once again as the Supreme Court ways the issue nationally.

The survey was conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for the Human Rights Campaign by surveying 1,000 self-identifying lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals on Jan. 25-31. The full sample has a margin of error of ±3.1 percent, while the small sample of Republicans has a margin of error of ±8.28 percent.

Correction: The original version of this story mischaracterized the Log Cabin Republican’s involvement in CPAC. The group was invited to participate in the conference.

TIME China

A Viral Video Urges Chinese Parents to Welcome LGBT Kids Home This Lunar New Year

The short film has become a holiday hit in China

This week, hundreds of millions of Chinese will crowd on to planes, trains, cars and motorbikes to make their way home for chun jie, or spring festival. It is a celebration — cue the fireworks — and a chance to reunite with loved ones after months, even years, away. It is also a time to eat, a time to rest, and, for many, a time to field a whole lot of questions from family members: Where’s your girlfriend? When are you getting married? Don’t you know we want a grandchild?

For LGBT folks in China, those questions can be particularly tough. Though China decriminalized gay sex in the late 1990s, stigma and discrimination persist in the workplace and at home, as documented in a report by the UNDP released last year. Though many find a degree of freedom and acceptance in China’s big, booming cities, some struggle to discuss their gender and sexual identities with their parents — a fact that prompted the Chinese branch of PFLAG (formerly known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) to make a short film about the issue.

The video, Coming Home, tells the story of a young man who summons the courage to talk to his mom about being gay, only to be criticized and cast out. After a long period of heartache and estrangement, his mother comes around, tearfully welcoming him home. As the credits roll, real mothers speak directly to the camera, offering words of encouragement and advice to young people facing the journey.

The message to parents: “Accept your children, welcome them home.” And for children: “Don’t give up. Your parents might not understand today, but maybe they will tomorrow.” It’s a sentiment that obviously struck a chord: the video has already racked up 100 million views.

Read next: New Google Doodle Honors Chinese New Year

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