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Americans Clash Over Religious-Freedom Laws

  • Chris Simkins

Religious-freedom measures in Indiana and Arkansas have focused national attention on cultural divisions between the country’s two main political parties, while igniting heated debate between liberal and conservative activists.

Protesters in Indiana called on state lawmakers to repeal a religious-freedom law that they said discriminated against gay and lesbian business customers. But Crystal O'Connor, whose family owns a pizza restaurant in Indiana, said the law protected establishments that do not support gay marriage.

"If a gay couple was to come in, and they wanted our business to provide them pizzas for a wedding, we would have to say no," O'Connor said.

The controversy turned into a national debate after most Republican presidential hopefuls supported Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Governor Mike Pence defended the measure, which gave individuals and businesses the legal ground to defend themselves against claims of discrimination.

"The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was about religious liberty, not about discrimination," Pence said.

But a national backlash along with business pressure forced Indiana's and Arkansas' Republican-controlled state legislatures to change their legislation. The measures now have provisions in them that explicitly prohibit business owners from denying services to gay and lesbian customers.

Republican presidential candidateTed Cruz sought to turn the issue into a cultural war against Democrats.

"Standing up for the very first liberty protected in the First Amendment [of the Constitution] is now viewed as inconsistent with the partisan political objective of the Democratic Party," the Texas senator said.

At the White House, President Obama's spokesman, Josh Earnest, disagreed with the way Republicans have cast the debate.

"This has not been a partisan or even a particularly political dispute," he said. "It's business interests, it's other Republicans, it is other leaders in the faith community who have stepped forward and said, particularly in Indiana, that this law is a terrible idea."

In Arkansas, there was criticism from Wal-Mart and smaller business owners who said religion is not an excuse to discriminate against gays or anyone else.

"It has a lot of potential to be very bad for the state of Arkansas, for business and just for the state's perception," said Kelli Marks, an Arkansas business owner. "The country is laughing at us. We don't need to pass this."

Twenty U.S. states have religious-freedom laws. In most cases, the measures were adopted by Republican-controlled legislatures and signed by governors seeking support from conservative evangelicals. Republican analyst Scot Faulkner said the cultural war over religious-freedom laws could hurt Republican efforts to broaden support for the party.

"When you think of Republicans, they are supposed to be for limited government, so they shouldn’t be putting an asterisk on that and saying limited government except when it comes to looking at what people are doing in their bedrooms,” he said.

Not everyone is happy with changes to the laws, with both conservative and liberal activists vowing to continue the fight over the political boundaries of religious freedom.

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