By Mary Wisniewski
(Reuters) - Indiana Governor Mike Pence on Thursday signed into law a controversial religious freedom bill that could allow businesses and individuals to deny services to gays, in a move that prompted protests from some business leaders.
Supporters of the bill, which was passed overwhelmingly by both chambers of the Republican-controlled state legislature, say it will keep the government from forcing business owners to act against strongly held religious beliefs. Opponents say it is discriminatory and broader than other state religious freedom laws.
Social conservatives have pushed for such laws following court rulings legalizing same-sex marriage and anticipating a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this year on whether states can ban same-sex marriage.
“The Constitution of the United States and the Indiana Constitution both provide strong recognition of the freedom of religion but today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action," Pence said in a statement after signing the bill.
Legal experts say the Religious Freedom Restoration Act sets a legal standard that will allow people of all faiths to bring religious freedom claims, but opinions differ over its impact.
Salesforce Inc Chief Executive Officer Marc Benioff said on Twitter that his San Francisco-based company would cancel programs that require travel to Indiana.
San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee condemned the law and barred city employees from traveling to Indiana at government expense unless essential for public health and safety.
Indiana Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Kevin Brinegar called the law "entirely unnecessary" and said it would bring the state unwanted attention.
Gay rights groups worry it will be used by businesses that do not want to provide services for gay weddings. Gay marriage became legal in Indiana last year following an appeals court ruling.
Pence said that the bill is "not about discrimination" and that 19 states have similar statutes.
Jennifer Pizer, senior counsel for Lambda Legal, a New York-based national gay rights legal group, said Indiana's law was broader than other state religious freedom laws in giving businesses religious rights. She compared it to a bill Republican Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed this year due to concerns it could harm the economy.
"It is a signal to those who want to discriminate that they have greater leeway to do so," Pizer said.
But Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor Daniel Conkle, who supports gay rights, compared the law to a Pennsylvania statute that prevented Philadelphia from barring a group of churches from feeding homeless people in parks.
Conkle said an Indiana caterer who objects to serving a gay wedding could use the law to have his day in court but would be unlikely to prevail.
The Republican mayor of Indianapolis criticized the act as sending the wrong message. "We are a diverse city and I want everyone who visits and lives in Indy to feel comfortable here," said Mayor Greg Ballard.
National Collegiate Athletic Association President Mark Emmert expressed concern about how the law could impact athletes and visitors attending next week's men's Final Four basketball tournament.
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Lisa Lambert, Jonathan Oatis, Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman)