Supporters of gay rights united in outrage Friday after the US state of Indiana adopted a law critics say would allow businesses to deny service to homosexuals on religious grounds.
Governor Mike Pence signed Senate Bill 101 on Thursday at a closed-door ceremony attended by Catholic nuns, orthodox Jews and socially conservative lobbyists.
"It is vitally important to protect religious freedom in Indiana," the Republican governor said in a statement.
"It was therefore important to pass Senate Bill 101 in 2015 in order to help protect churches, Christian businesses and individuals from those who want to punish them because of their Biblical beliefs!"
The law, which takes effect July 1, makes no mention of gays or lesbians, and Pence said that if it was discriminatory, he would not have signed it.
But activists say it effectively makes it legal for Indiana businesses whose owners reject homosexuality on religious grounds to turn away LGBT customers.
"They`ve basically said, as long as your religion tells you to, it`s OK to discriminate against people," said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation`s biggest gay rights group.
The Indiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called the law a "backlash" response to a failed bid last year to put a gay marriage ban in the state`s constitution."It poses harm to our reputation as a welcoming state that is open to everyone and it disrupts the balance that respects individuals` freedom of religion without jeopardizing others` freedom from discrimination," it said in a statement.
Cloud computer giant Salesforce -- one of many big corporations that spoke out against the legislation -- said it will cut back on its Indiana investments.
Apple chief executive Tim Cook, in a rare Twitter post, said his company was "deeply disappointed," and called on Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson to veto a similar measure now on its way to his desk.
"Apple is open for everyone," Cook said.
Gen Con, the world`s biggest gaming convention with 56,000 attendees last year, said it might stop holding the event in Indianapolis, the state`s main city, where it said it contributes more than $50 million to the economy.
The powerful National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), hosting the US men`s college basketball finals in Indianapolis next week, said it was "especially concerned" how the law would affect its student-athletes and employers.
Hollywood stars joined the furor via social media, where actor Ashton Kutcher likened the law to anti-Semitism and singer Miley Cyrus hurled an expletive at Pence.
Gay rights have made big strides in recent years, with marriage equality recognized in 37 states after the US Supreme Court in 2013 ruled that federal law could not discriminate against wedded LGBT couples.
Senate Bill 101, however, is styled on a 1993 federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that makes it illegal for Washington to "substantially burden" an individual`s freedom of religion.
Eighteen other states have adopted similar laws, including some like Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas with constitutions that ban same-sex marriage.