clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Mike Pence as Donald Trump’s vice president is an extra awful choice for LGBTQ rights

Pence has a long history of opposing LGBTQ rights — including in the most important political controversy of his career.

Donald Trump and Mike Pence.
Donald Trump and Mike Pence.
Tasos Katopodis/AFP via Getty Images

Donald Trump’s opposition to same-sex marriage and casual bigotry never made him a favorite among LGBTQ voters, but one of his biggest campaign decisions sealed the deal: By picking Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate, Trump’s Republican ticket is absolutely the anti-LGBTQ ticket.

To understand why, you have to go back to early 2015. Back then, Pence, as governor of Indiana, signed a religious freedom bill into law. It was never clear if the bill would actually allow discrimination against LGBTQ people, but both proponents and critics of the measure said it would — specifically, they claimed the bill would allow businesses to ignore local nondiscrimination laws and discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

This controversy remains one of the biggest political crises of Pence’s career, leading to nationwide backlash. Renowned Star Trek actor George Takei called for a boycott of the state. Angie's List, an online consumer ratings service, withdrew a $40 million expansion of its headquarters in Indianapolis. Apple CEO Tim Cook penned a Washington Post column describing the law and others like it as "very dangerous." And the state's largest newspaper, the Indianapolis Star, ran an issue calling for the state to "FIX THIS NOW."

The Indianapolis Star's RFRA cover. Indianapolis Star

In response to all of the controversy, the Indiana legislature amended the law to clarify that it doesn’t allow discrimination against LGBTQ people. But for LGBTQ people, it will be hard to forget the man who was at the front of this huge battle: Mike Pence.

Religious freedom laws have existed for decades, but the politics around such laws have changed

President Bill Clinton signed the federal RFRA at a very different time in the US. Consolidated News Pictures via Getty Images

The law Pence signed — a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) — has been around since President Bill Clinton approved a federal version of the law in 1993.

Traditionally, RFRAs were used to protect religious minorities, including the Amish and Muslims. But as conservatives have lost battles over LGBTQ rights (particularly same-sex marriage), they have turned to religious freedom laws in an attempt to carve out methods to continue allowing discrimination.

In recent years, these laws have been pushed with explicitly anti-LGBTQ messaging. In Indiana, Advance America, a local conservative organization, said on its website that the state’s RFRA would help "Christian bakers, florists, and photographers" so they're not "punished for refusing to participate in a homosexual marriage!" And in Georgia, after a gay-friendly Republican lawmaker included protections for LGBTQ people in an RFRA bill, legislators tabled it at the last minute — suggesting the bill did have something to do with restricting LGBTQ rights.

For Indiana, the biggest fear for LGBTQ advocates was that the law would allow open discrimination of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Hoosiers — not just in bakeries and hotels that will deny service to LGBTQ people, but among employers who will refuse to hire them or landlords who will reject housing applications. Some even raised fears about "no gays allowed" signs at stores, drawing a troubling comparison to the days of government-sanctioned segregation in the South.

Pence didn’t alleviate this perception. When ABC host George Stephanopoulos asked Pence whether the law would allow discrimination against LGBTQ people, he refused to give a yes or no answer. He also told the Indianapolis Star that it’s not on his agenda to add explicit legal protections for gays and lesbians. The latter comment drew ire from LGBTQ advocates, including Ian Thompson at the American Civil Liberties Union, who questioned Pence’s motives on Twitter:

Still, legal experts widely disagree that RFRAs allow legal discrimination against LGBTQ people. As Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in religious liberty laws, wrote to the Weekly Standard at the time, "There are hardly any cases about discrimination, and nobody has ever won a religious exemption from a discrimination law under a RFRA standard" in the decades this kind of law has existed.

For Pence, the issue was that the RFRA was always supposed to pander to anti-LGBTQ activists. Even if the law really didn’t allow discrimination against LGBTQ people, anti-LGBTQ advocates sure thought it did. So they supported it — and Pence supported it knowing that it would make a big part of his base (social conservatives) happy.

The obvious pandering and implication the law would allow anti-LGBTQ discrimination led to a national firestorm. According to one analysis, the backlash from businesses led Indianapolis alone to lose up to $60 million in economic impact in the following months.

What’s more, even though Pence always said that he opposed discrimination of any kind, he had the chance to put legislation where his words were following the RFRA controversy — and he didn’t.

Religious freedom law or not, Indiana law still mostly allows anti-LGBTQ discrimination

After the controversy, LGBTQ advocates hoped one good thing would come out of it: Maybe Indiana could finally pass a statewide law that legally protects LGBTQ people. That would, advocates thought, be the logical way for Republican legislators to repent after passing a RFRA that was widely interpreted as anti-LGBTQ.

That never happened. Despite some momentum going in, Indiana legislators failed to pass a civil rights law for LGBTQ people. And along the way, Pence suggested that he didn’t really care if the bill passed — frankly telling the Indianapolis Star, "That’s not on my agenda."

So Indiana remains among the majority of states that don’t protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in the workplace, housing, or public accommodations (such as hotels, restaurants, and other places that serve the public):

As a result, it’s legal under Indiana law for an employer to fire someone, a landlord to evict someone, and a business owner to kick someone out just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, regardless of religious freedom laws.

To sum up: Pence signed a religious freedom law that was advertised by supporters as allowing discrimination against LGBTQ people, even if it actually didn’t. He then had a chance to repent for what seemed like anti-LGBTQ legislation by finally pushing a law to legally protect LGBTQ people from discrimination — but he didn’t, suggesting it was not part of his agenda.

This is only part of Pence’s long anti-LGBTQ record. As Will Drabold reported for Time magazine, Pence also rejected federal civil rights laws that would protect LGBTQ people in the workplace, and he opposed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And in 2006, he said that being gay is a choice, that preventing same-sex marriage is "God’s idea," and that same-sex couples signaled a "societal collapse [that] was always brought about following an advent of the deterioration of marriage and family."

Yet despite this long anti-LGBTQ record, Pence is Trump’s pick for vice president.