Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said Sunday that a new state law that attempts to protect long-standing religious freedoms “is not about discrimination” and that he and other state lawmakers do not intend to change the legislation.
Pence, a Republican, said the legislation that he signed last week prohibits Indiana laws that "substantially burden" a person's ability to follow his or her religious beliefs.
The definition of "person" includes religious institutions, businesses and associations, which is being interpreted as allowing a cake maker, for example, to legally refuse an order for a wedding cake for a gay couple.
Pence told ABC's "This Week” the original federal law is more than 20 years old and that the purpose of the new Indiana one is to expand individual rights for those who feel government has impinged on their personal rights.
“This is not about discrimination,” he said. “This is about empowering people to confront government overreach.”
However, Pence did not answer directly when asked six times whether under the law it would be legal for a merchant to refuse to serve gay customers.
“The issue here is still: Is tolerance a two-way street or not?" he responded several times.
Since he signed the bill into law, Indiana has been widely criticized by businesses and organizations around the nation, as well as on social media with the hashtag #boycottindiana. Already, consumer review service Angie's List has said it will suspend a planned expansion that includes Indianapolis because of the new law.
Pence said earlier this weekend that he'll look at a bill to clarify the law's intent if lawmakers send him one. He also told the Indianapolis Star on Saturday that he is in discussions with state legislative leaders and expects a clarification bill to be introduced in the coming week.
But Pence was adamant Sunday that the measure, slated to take effect in July, will stick.
"We're not going to change the law," he said.
Some national gay-rights groups say it's a way for lawmakers in Indiana and several other states where such bills have been proposed this year to essentially grant a state-sanctioned waiver for discrimination as the nation's highest court prepares to mull the gay marriage question.
Supporters of the law, including Pence, contend discrimination claims are overblown and insist it will keep the government from compelling people to provide services they find objectionable on religious grounds.
They also maintain courts haven't allowed discrimination under similar laws covering the federal government and 19 other states. Arkansas is poised to follow in Indiana's footsteps, with a final vote expected next week in the House on legislation that Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he'll sign.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest appeared on "This Week" just after Pence and said the debate isn't a political argument.
"If you have to go back two decades to try to justify what you're doing today, it may raise questions," Earnest said, referring to the 1993 federal law, signed by President Bill Clinton that Pence brought up.
“He’s in damage-control mode this morning and he's got some damage to fix," Earnest also said about Pence.
State Rep. Ed DeLaney, an Indianapolis Democrat, told a large, boisterous crowd Saturday gathered outside of the statehouse to protest that the law creates "a road map, a path to discrimination."
Rally attendees chanted "Pence must go!" several times and held signs that read "No hate in our state."
Pence on Sunday repeatedly called the criticism “An avalanche of condemnation.”
Asked if he would be willing to add sexual orientation to the list of characteristics against which discrimination is illegal, Pence said, "I will not push for that. That's not on my agenda, and that's not been an objective of the people of the state of Indiana."
U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat, released a video statement on his Facebook page Saturday, saying: "We'll work together to reverse SB101 and we'll stand together to make sure that here in Indiana, we welcome everyone, every day."
Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican who opposed the law, has said he and other city officials will talk with businesses and convention planners to counter the uproar.
Angie's List had sought an $18.5 million incentive package from Indianapolis' City-County Council to add 1,000 jobs over five years. But founder and CEO Bill Oseterle said in a statement Saturday that the expansion was on hold "until we fully understand the implications of the freedom restoration act on our employees."
The Indianapolis-based NCAA has expressed concerns about the law and has suggested it could move future events elsewhere; the men's Final Four will be held in the city next weekend.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.