Salesforce CEO labels Indiana's RFRA “brutal”, Governor Pence finally promises “fix”

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez March 31, 2015
The technology industry has been putting pressure on Indiana over its bigots charter (the RFRA), forcing Republican Governor Pence to reconsider his options.


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Republican Governor Mike Pence finally appears to be buckling under pressure from the technology industry over his signing of Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) – which has been dubbed a bigots charter – claiming that he will introduce a “fix” to the legislation this week to protect against discrimination.

However, shortly after the Governor gave his press conference today, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, which has led the technology industry in a campaign against the charter, said that he still hadn't heard what he needed to hear from Pence and labelled the RFRA as “brutal”.

To recap, last week Governor Pence's signing of the RFRA, which essentially allows providers of services to discriminate against customers on the grounds of religious belief, sparked a huge outcry from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community.

But as has been pointed out, the RFRA, as it currently stands, provides businesses the legal right to pretty much discriminate anyone on the grounds of 'religious freedom'.

Thankfully Marc Benioff took a firm stand against the charter and cancelled all Salesforce travel to and programs involving Indiana, which is the home of the firm's ExactTarget arm. He also ruled out any further expansion plans in the state if the law was to go ahead.

Benioff's stand has since prompted other companies to follow his lead, which has resulted in money being pulled out of the state. For example, a technology conference that was due to be held in Indiana revealed today that a number of its key sponsors had pulled back on funding.

Considering this backlash, it is perhaps unsurprising that Governor Pence is now beginning to change his tune and has committed to 'fixing' the law, so that it doesn't allow for discrimination.

However, some aren't quite calling Pence's speech a full U-turn, given that he still hasn't said what exactly the fix will be and he is still opposing adding sexual orientation to the list of Indiana's protected categories under state anti-discrimination law.

Pence said today that the RFRA was about “religious liberty” and “not discrimination”. He claimed that it does not give anyone a licence to discriminate or to deny services, it is simply a “balancing test” used by our courts. He added:

I don't believe for a minute that it was the intention of the General Assembly to create a licence to discriminate or a right to deny services to gay, lesbians or anyone else in this state. But I can appreciate that that has become the perception. And we need to confront that and confront that boldly. I abhor discrimination.

We've got a perception problem here, because some people have a different view. We intend to correct that. After much reflection and in consultation with leadership in the General Assembly, I have come to the conclusion that it would be helpful to move legislation this week that makes it clear that this law does not give businesses the right to deny services to anyone.

Whether or not that's enough to calm the tension amongst the communities opposing the legislation remains to be seen. However, in an interview after Pence's speech, Marc Benioff implied that from Salesforce's perspective, Pence has not yet done enough. In an interview with msnbc, Benioff said:

This is a bad law and it needs to change.

The damage it creates to our employees and customers is not acceptable. He has not made the

Governor Mike Pence
Governor Mike Pence

statement yet that we are waiting for. We want to make sure that our employees and customers are protected. We are the largest technology employer in Indiana and we do bring thousands of customers to Indiana, and we want them to have a great experience.

This law though is just brutal and it opens up a level of discrimination to those employees and customers that is just unacceptable.”

I think they can make a fix, as long as they make it crystal clear that if you are an LGBT member and you are walking into a cafe, there isn't going to be a sign in there that says 'no gays allowed'. You saw those legislative leaders make a statement yesterday that it was okay to have a sign in the window saying 'no gays allowed'. That's not alright.

My take

Pence's claims that this piece of legislation has been 'misunderstood' or has been 'perceived in the wrong way' are insulting. Legal frameworks are put in place to remove any element of ambiguity about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in a civil society and the RFRA left the door wide open for discrimination.

A fix is probably the most likely of outcomes, rather than a repeal, but the fact that Pence is still not willing to put sexual orientation within the protected categories under anti-discrimination law, speaks volumes – despite all the claims that he and his Republican friends that are supporting the legislation aren't prejudiced against anyone.

Kudos once again to Marc Benioff, Salesforce and all the other technology companies taking a stand. It's nice to see big business working for the greater good. Keep it up.

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