Daniels laments RFRA impact to Indiana

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels won’t come right out and say what he thinks about the state’s new religious freedom bill and the accompanying taint of gay/lesbian discrimination that has sent Indiana spiraling into a second week of boycott threats and national ridicule.

But for a former Indiana governor who once called for a truce along culture war battle lines, it wasn’t hard to read between the lines in a phone conversation late Tuesday.

“I guess the one thing I will say is a lot of people are heartsick about this,” Daniels said. “For those of us who feel like we spent years building up a great business climate and reputation for the state, you hate to see anything damage it in the way, at least for the moment, it has.”

As businesses threaten to abandon the state, boycotts of Indiana get rolling, the state’s biggest cities sweat about lost convention traffic and one university after another in Indiana find ways to denounce the religious freedom bill, Daniels has kept a noticeably low profile.

For one, Daniels said over the phone before heading to the Purdue women’s basketball banquet Tuesday night he doesn’t intend to speak for the university on the matter without the Purdue trustees weighing in first.

For another, Daniels said he doesn’t think it’s right to comment on the performance of Gov. Mike Pence, his successor in the Statehouse who is under fire from so many sides right now over the state’s version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

So a bloodless reiteration of the university’s nondiscrimination policy issued this week by the university would have to suffice, for better or for worse. By contrast, student and faculty leaders are now looking for ways to put a more firm Purdue stamp on the situation.

The question stood, though: Could this have happened on his watch? Does he believe he could have seen it coming in ways that Pence and a wide majority in the General Assembly didn’t?

Would he have sized up the warnings throughout the session about how the Religious Freedom Restoration Act might — and eventually did — come across in Indiana and to the nation?

Daniels demurred: “I don’t want to talk about this one at this point. I just don’t.”

But as for Daniels’ history with some of the key players who have emerged in the religious freedom bill aftermath, he’s willing to reminisce a bit.

Feel free to read between the lines.

First up is Bill Oesterle, co-founder of Angie’s List, who helped keep the anti-RFRA backlash going Saturday when he declared he was pulling expansion plans for the Indianapolis-based company. Oesterle managed Daniels’ 2004 campaign — his first for governor.

Daniels said Oesterle was the one who suggested adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the campaign’s nondiscrimination policy when it came to hiring.

“And then when the campaign was successful, we replicated that in official state employment policy, which extended, as we saw it, to contracting all the state’s operations,” Daniels said this week. “There was more than a little criticism at the time. And it was from folks who are still active on these issues.”

Daniels’ opponent in the GOP primary in 2004 was Eric Miller, who, as executive director of Advance America, was a key lobbying force on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and was at Pence’s private signing of the law last week.

Miller also bragged on the Advance America website about how easy it would be, armed with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, for businesses to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers, even as lawmakers were scrambling to say that wasn’t their intent.

Back in 2005, Miller and Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana, railed on a newly inaugurated Gov. Daniels about the sexual orientation clause. Clark feared it would become a hiring quota in state government and a step closer to same-sex marriage in Indiana, accusing Daniels of abandoning family values.

Oesterle said it was the photo of Miller, Clark and Curt Smith of the Indiana Family Institute at Pence’s bill signing — carefully staged to include the biggest religious freedom bill backers in a private ceremony by the governor’s office — that set him off last week.

“That photograph told me everything I needed to know,” Oesterle said to The Indianapolis Star. “I’ve been on the other side of this issue with them for a long time, going back to the governor’s (Daniels’) campaign. That’s when I first became exposed to those people. The most prominent three figures standing directly behind the governor were those three individuals.”

It remains a fact that Daniels did not translate his administration’s hiring practices into something more far-reaching, including adding sexual orientation to the state’s anti-discrimination codes.

And Daniels couldn’t, or didn’t, stop proposed constitutional bans on same-sex marriage from advancing in the General Assembly.

But as he weighed a run for the White House, Daniels suggested a nation dealing with debt needed to “declare a sort of truce on our other differences” and “temporarily … set aside our social issues.” His point, made in his 2011 book “Keep the Republic”:

“If America goes broke, suffering will come to gays and straights, men and women, pro-life and pro-choice advocates, and to people of all races.”

In this week’s conversation, Daniels returned to that theme.

“When I said, nationally, that they should consider a truce on these matters — not that anybody had to surrender — that was an extension, you could say, to the approach we tried to take here in the state,” Daniels said. “Again, not everyone bought that, including some of the people who tended to be critical and are still active in the same social issues today.”

That truce didn’t stop legislation aimed at chipping away at Planned Parenthood, including a bill Daniels signed in 2011 to block federal funding to the nonprofit agency.

Still, Daniels filled whatever void social issues left with plenty of pitched battles along economic lines: school reform, government privatization, right-to-work legislation, property tax reform, daylight-saving time and more. And he won friends and enemies — plenty on both sides — along the way.

“We tried to keep active on things like that — big things, really important things, we felt, for the state,” Daniels said. “So people could have disagreed, but not necessarily along the same lines you’re seeing right now.”

And on the culture war front?

“I still say that truce was a good idea, in many ways,” Daniels said.

Read between the lines.

Dave Bangert is a writer for the (Lafayette) Journal and Courier. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.