WASHINGTON -- Retired Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) sharply criticized his home state governor on Tuesday for signing a controversial "religious freedom" law that he said would unambiguously invite discrimination against gays and lesbians.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Bayh called on Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to either repeal the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act or push a bill that would make lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Indiana a protected class. Bayh said that efforts by Pence to argue that the bill won't invite anti-gay discrimination by Indiana businesses lack any sober-minded legal understanding of the statute.
"I think the governor needs a good lawyer," he said. "I’m not really joking. Because I take him at his word that he doesn’t favor discrimination. And there are some parts, some effects that the law might have that may be benign. ... But there are other effects that are not benign. And by its very language -- and it’s the difference between the federal law and other state laws, combined with the fact that we don’t have an anti-discrimination statute in our state -- on its face, it would allow individuals and for-profit businesses to deny service to their fellow citizens on religious grounds. So it would allow discrimination."
Bayh's condemnation of the new law, which has yet to take effect, is the latest from a growing line of Democrats. But owing to his stature in the state, and the fact that he could end up running for the open Senate seat there in 2016, his words ratchet up the political pressure being placed on Pence. A number of businesses have already either cancelled expansions in Indiana or expressed deep concern with the law. Several cities and states, meanwhile, have restricted non-essential travel for public officials to the state.
"Every day this is left to fester out there, our state is held up to further damage and attack, so clearly something needs to be done," said Bayh. "And the sooner the better."
Pence held a news conference on Tuesday to say that he would push for a clarifying measure to the law without elaborating much on what language he hoped to see. He simultaneously argued that the debate was being maliciously misconstrued by the national media, noting that many other states have also passed RFRA laws and that a federal one is currently on the books.
But critics have called his pushback unconvincing. The Indiana law, they note, has important technical differences. It would, for instance, allow individuals to cite religious beliefs when denying services in transactions that don't involve a government entity (as opposed to dealing only with those transactions that do). Bayh added that the context of the law's passage was important. Those pushing the bill, he argued, envisioned RFRA as a sword used by businesses to refuse services to gay couples, as opposed to a shield to protect religious minorities from government interference.
"I’m sure people who are for this legislation are telling him, 'Look, this is all it does. It deals with these benign instances.' And he needs someone who really knows the law to sit down with him and say, 'Well governor, that’s true but that’s not the whole truth because it would allow these other things that you don’t favor.' And he needs to focus on that," said Bayh.
Bayh, who retired from the Senate in 2010, has been semi-regularly engaged in politics since his departure, most notably on issues like debt and deficit reduction. His decision to jump in so deeply on a hot cultural matter underscores the growing comfort that even centrist Democrats now have in defending LGBT causes. It also suggests that he may be envisioning a return to office. Bayh has nearly $10 million left in his bank account. Asked if he was contemplating running for the seat of retiring Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), he didn't say no, but also didn't seem particularly eager.
"I’m flattered by the speculation," he said. "I guess it would be bad if you get to the point where nobody ever asks you, right? But I think that’s very unlikely, simply because -- well for a variety of factors, that’s very unlikely."
Additional reporting by Maxwell Tani.