With 2016’s first and only vice presidential debate set to take place tonight, speculation has been building as to what topics will be covered once Mike Pence and Tim Kaine take the stage. While recent campaign controversies will certainly draw the headlines, it’s possible that some policy areas ignored in the first presidential debate, such as religious liberty, may make an appearance as well.
In fact, some on the left, such as the progressive Media Matters for America, are even advocating for debate moderators to query Pence on his religious liberty views, particularly given his involvement in Indiana’s RFRA controversy last year:
Before he was chosen as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s vice presidential running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was arguably best known for the controversy over the “religious freedom” bill he signed into law in 2015. The continuing nationwide debate over “religious freedom” bills and Pence’s repeated refusal to stake out his position on anti-LGBT discrimination makes the vice presidential debate the perfect opportunity to find out where Pence really stands on so-called “religious freedom” laws.
The Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) has already made it clear that he supports nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community. The October 4 vice presidential debate gives CBS News’ Elaine Quijano the chance to ask Pence — running as part of a presidential ticket that’s attempted to appeal to LGBT voters — for a definitive answer on whether he supports “religious freedom” legislation that legalizes discrimination against LGBT people.
Setting aside the author’s problematic portrayal of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act as “LGBT discrimination” (which I have addressed here before), the overall point is one that both progressives and conservatives can likely agree on: voters want to know where the VP candidates stand on religious liberty. And this is especially true for Pence, whose record on the issue is decidedly mixed.
Back in August, The Pulse’s own Michael Lucchese aptly summarized conservative concerns with Pence, after the Indiana governor made some characteristically ambiguous remarks on the subject:
“The lessons that we learned in the state of Indiana is that the American people abhor discrimination – we don’t support discrimination against anyone,” Pence said. “But at the end of the day it’s important that whenever our rights come into conflict, that the courts are the proper place to resolve those rights.”
Later in the statement, Pence said, “And Donald Trump and I really believe that these are issues that are best resolved in Georgia, in Indiana and at the state level.”
There are a few problems with Pence’s lecture to the people of Georgia.
First, Pence’s record on religious liberty is not exemplary. Last year, the Indiana General Assembly passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and Pence signed it into law. But once Big Business, the entertainment industry, and special interest groups put pressure on Pence to backtrack, he immediately crumpled and removed some of the law’s most serious protections.
Additionally, Pence’s statement contradicts the national Republican Party’s platform. House Republicans, led by Speaker Paul Ryan, have rallied in support of the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), which “prohibits the federal government from taking discriminatory action against a person on the basis that such person believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that: (1) marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or (2) sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.”
And on top of all this, Pence’s running mate at the top of the ticket, Donald Trump, said last year that he would sign FADA were it to make it to his desk as president.
Lucchese further points out that surrendering the issue of religious liberty to the courts is not a principled — nor a prudential — decision, given the courts’ increasing hostility to rights of conscience.
So what will happen if Pence is asked about religious liberty tonight?
On the one hand, he could use it as a significant opportunity to allay concerns about his past words in actions. He could put forward a rigorous defense of religious freedom laws such as Indiana’s RFRA, which do not justify discrimination but rather simply set a higher bar for the government to clear before it can infringe upon the sincerely held beliefs of Americans. He could also announce his support for the First Amendment Defense Act (support for which Trump has also recently reaffirmed), which protects Americans who hold to a traditional view of marriage from discrimination by the state.
On the other hand, Pence could also revert back to his Georgia answer, sending a clear signal that religious liberty is not an issue he is interested in fighting for.
Which response Pence opts for — if presented with the opportunity — will be key to his debate performance tonight. Voters will be watching closely.
Paul Dupont is the managing editor for ThePulse2016.com.