Web Video: Faith, politics and business converge in debate over Religious Freedom laws

Apr. 03, 2015 AT 12:35 p.m. EDT

After the uproar over Indiana’s Religious Freedom act, lawmakers in that state and Arkansas worked to revise or create new legislation to prove the laws do not allow discrimination. Gwen Ifill talks to Pastor Tim Overton of Halteman Village Baptist Church, Micheline Maynard of Arizona State University and Ron Brownstein of National Journal about the crossroads of business, religion and politics.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

GWEN IFILL: Lawmakers in Indiana and Arkansas worked quickly today in attempts to prove their religious freedom laws do not allow discrimination. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed a new version that tracks more closely with federal law.

And hours later, Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed his state’s revised Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which he said won’t allow businesses to turn customers away for sexual orientation and gender identity.

But Republican and Democratic lawmakers disagreed on the fix.

BRIAN BOSMA, (R) Indiana Speaker of the House: What was intended as a message of inclusion, inclusion of all religious beliefs, was interpreted as a message of exclusion, especially for the LGBT community. Nothing could have been truer from — further from the truth, but it was clear that the perception had to be addressed.

SCOTT PELATH, (D) Indiana House Minority Leader: We have to look at how we got here. I want to hear somebody say we made a grave mistake and we caused the state tremendous embarrassment that will take months and possibly years to repair.

GWEN IFILL: The religious freedom debate has stirred up a hornet’s nest at the crossroads of business, religion and politics.

For more on how the argument has been unfolding, we are joined by the Reverend Tim Overton, pastor of Halteman Village Baptist Church in Muncie, Indiana, Micheline Maynard, director of the Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University, and Ron Brownstein, editorial director for The National Journal.

I’m going to start with Reverend Overton.

Give me a sense of how your religious community sees this debate right now.

REV. TIM OVERTON, Halteman Village Baptist Church: Well , there’s a huge concern in the religious community after the Hobby Lobby case, where the government basically wanted to tell that Christian-owned company that you need to buy medicine that cause abortion for your employees, or the subpoenaing of the pastor’s sermons in Houston that, as society is changing, we may be losing some of our religious liberties.

And so we were supportive of this law to set a high bar for government to interfere in the private practice of religion. And the original bill, we were very pleased with.

GWEN IFILL: And, yet, Micheline Maynard, one of the most remarkable parts about — unfolding in this debate this week has been the series of companies who have lined up against that argument, not what we saw with the Supreme Court case. Why?

MICHELINE MAYNARD, Arizona State University: That’s right, Gwen.

So, we got a preview of this a year ago here in Arizona, where the Arizona legislature approved something very similar to the Indiana law, and there was a business outcry before the bill got to the governor. Governor — former Governor Jan Brewer actually vetoed it because people like the NFL were saying, if you pass this, we might not put the Super Bowl in Arizona.

So, if you go to Indiana, Indiana is a state that has marketed itself to the world as a forward-looking, innovative, technology-focused state. And they have attracted a number of new investors in Indiana. So that is one of the reasons why this became such a hot button with the business community. They have choices. They can go elsewhere. They don’t want their employees or their customers to feel that they aren’t welcome.

GWEN IFILL: And, Ron Brownstein, we saw this also play out, this very same kind of business-religious axis, political axis, play out in Arkansas as well, two Republican governors caught up in the heart of this.

What were the ripples, and were they to be expected?

RON BROWNSTEIN, National Journal: Yes, I think what we’re seeing is really remarkable.

I started covering politics in the 1980s. And in that era, it was Republicans who consistently tried to escalate, instigate cultural collisions, confident that they had the winning hand, and that emphasizing these issues would fracture the Democratic coalition.

Well, you fast-forward through 20 years of changing cultural attitudes and changing underlying demographics, and on most of these questions, whether it is access to employer-provided contraception or gay rights or gay marriage or immigration, it is Democrats who are now confident that they represent the majority of the country.

And they are the ones who I think are most confident forcing these issues to a head. And I think the retreat that we saw in Arkansas and Indiana is really emblematic of that.

GWEN IFILL: Reverend Overton, I want to ask you about that retreat, because do you — did you see that as a setback for what you consider to be a simple matter of free speech and religious freedom?

REV. TIM OVERTON: Well, I do believe government needs a good reason to interfere with the private practice of religion among our citizens in this country.

And so retreating from that was very disappointing to me. Our biggest concern with the changes is that Christian-owned businesses or religious-owned businesses are not going to be able to carry their faith as they would like to into the business realm. And I think we need to make a distinction between services that require speech and services like gasoline, groceries and a hamburger that nobody thinks anyone should be discriminated against on that basis.

But, say, a photographer who is Catholic, they believe that one of the sacraments of their church is marriage. And for the government to compel them to show up to a gay union that they believe is against their religion is just a step too far, I think, for government power.

Religious liberty has been a long tradition here, and we need to make sure that, as gay rights are asserted in the culture, that we don’t lose something precious that is very unique in the history of mankind, which is religious liberty.

GWEN IFILL: Micheline Maynard, one of the things that was interesting about this is that we saw Apple — and their CEO is openly gay — but then we saw Wal-Mart and we saw NASCAR and Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical company, companies which aren’t known for being on the cutting edge of liberal politics, all lining up on the same side.

Was this just about the bottom line?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: I think that, obviously, business considerations come first here, but you have to remember something.

The LGBT community in Indiana is pretty small. I think it’s only about 3.7 percent of the population. But the people who have been moving to Indiana, especially to Indianapolis, to work in the tech sector, to work in innovative companies may be gay or lesbian, but they also have — if they’re straight, they might have gay or lesbian friends.

And so I think this was a question of businesses looking across their customer bases at some gays and lesbians who might work with them or shop with them, but also looking at the support that surrounds that community and saying, you know, we just can’t risk this.

GWEN IFILL: Ron Brownstein, giving shifting public opinions and demographic changes, who’s most at risk in these kinds of cultural clashes, Democrats or Republicans?

RON BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think, by and large, at this point, on balance, the Republicans face a more difficult challenge.

There is a reality that the Republican primary base, the base of voters, includes the components of society that are most uneasy about these changes. In 2012, 90 percent of the primary Republican voters were white, 60 percent were over 50, half of them were evangelical Christians. That is a reality that every Republican candidate has to navigate.

On the other hand, opinion on these issues is moving in the other direction, especially among younger people. Even on this question of whether businesses should be required to provide service to gay couples, over 60 percent of people under 30 say yes.

So, there’s no question about where the underlying current in society is moving. The challenge Republicans have, that we saw figures like Mike Pence struggle with and ultimately fail with this week, was trying to navigate between that changing center of public opinion and the views of their own base.

So, I think it is going to be a challenge for all of the Republican presidential candidates in 2016.

GWEN IFILL: Reverend Overton, let’s take politics out of it for a moment and just talk about how your church, your denomination, your ministry survives as the waters are shifting under your feet. Or are they?

REV. TIM OVERTON: Well, America is a very religious country. And I think the more people know about this bill — there’s been a lot of misinformation out about this — the more people will come over to our perspective and support what we’re trying to do.

I don’t believe that Americans believe government ought to be intrusive into the private lives and religious belief of the citizens. And a Religious Freedom Restoration Act was voted for by Ted Kennedy, by Chuck Schumer, signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Even President Obama, when he was a senator in Illinois, voted for a RFRA.

So, these are not controversial issues. They have just been controversial recently. And I really feel for the politicians that are in Indianapolis. They have got to deal with all this. It’s very difficult. A lot of them have had personal sacrifices. As you know, many legislators own businesses. And those businesses have taken a hit.

So I admire the men and women in our legislature who are standing and trying to defend religious liberty. And I just believe this is something that we can all agree on. And we just need to figure out a way to come together and assert that people are treated with dignity, but at the same time religious liberty is preserved.

GWEN IFILL: Micheline, has there been any kind of Democratic — I mean, business backlash in favor of Reverend Overton’s position, which is to say, they have said, stay out of our business?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Well, you know, Gwen, one of the things about business in the United States is that, when you open up your doors and you sell something to the public, I think the principles in this country have been that you welcome all comers.

Now, there are certainly some businesses that will say, you know what, I would rather close than serve gay or lesbian patrons. And that’s certainly their right. But I think one of the fundamentals that underlies our economy is that, you know, if you sell a product, you need to be able to take the money from whoever wants to give it to you.

GWEN IFILL: And, finally, Ron Brownstein, how do you square the circle? If you’re a politician and you’re trying to figure out how to navigate these treacherous waters, how do they do that?

RON BROWNSTEIN: Well, look, I think that what we just heard is really the principle.

I think Americans do believe in religious liberty, but they do not believe that extends to the point of denying equal treatment to all Americans. That is an inexorable current. The single most, I think, consistent trend in our views of kind of social relations in this country is, we expand the circle of equality.


RON BROWNSTEIN: That is the American story. It is now inexorably happening for same-sex couples. And I think there’s no reversing that.

And to the extent any political party or politician seems to be standing in the way of that, ultimately, I do not think that position can stand.

GWEN IFILL: Ron Brownstein, Micheline Maynard, and Tim Overton, thank you all very much.


REV. TIM OVERTON: Thank you.


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