Before he was chosen as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s vice presidential running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was arguably best known for the controversy over the “religious freedom” bill he signed into law in 2015. The continuing nationwide debate over “religious freedom” bills and Pence’s repeated refusal to stake out his position on anti-LGBT discrimination makes the vice presidential debate the perfect opportunity to find out where Pence really stands on so-called “religious freedom” laws.
In March 2015, Pence signed Indiana's “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA) into law, a move The New York Times called the “most consequential - and controversial” decision Pence made as governor. The law -- which was criticized by religious leaders, members of the business community, legal scholars, and even the Republican mayor of Indianapolis -- provided a legal defense for individuals and business owners who cite their religious beliefs while discriminating against LGBT people.
The furious backlash to the law put Pence in the center of a nationwide media firestorm, which included a disastrous interview on ABC’s This Week where Pence repeatedly refused to answer a question about whether the RFRA legalized discrimination against LGBT people. At a town hall this past February, Pence again refused to answer whether anti-LGBT discrimination should be legal.
The Indiana RFRA is just one component of Pence’s longheld opposition to LGBT equality. Previously, Pence has:
- said that gay couples signaled a “societal collapse” as part of a 2006 speech advocating for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman;
- pledged to oppose allowing gay people to serve in the military under “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” because “the presence of homosexuals in the ranks weakens unit cohesion”; and
- called the 2009 expansion of federal hate crime legislation to include crimes based on sexual orientation a “radical social agenda.”
Where Pence now stands on so-called “religious freedom” legislation and anti-LGBT discrimination is also a question of importance for Republicans. After the fierce criticism of the RFRA, Pence signed a “fix” to the law aimed at preventing businesses from using the measure to to justify discriminating against LGBT people. That decision drew ire from Christian conservatives who felt betrayed by the move. A Politico article in July noted that evangelicals are “still peeved” over his backtracking on the RFRA, with right-wing Iowa radio host Steve Deace calling it “the worst we’ve ever been stabbed in the back by a Republican.”
The Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) has already made it clear that he supports nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community. The October 4 vice presidential debate gives CBS News' Elaine Quijano the chance to ask Pence -- running as part of a presidential ticket that’s attempted to appeal to LGBT voters -- for a definitive answer on whether he supports “religious freedom” legislation that legalizes discrimination against LGBT people.