Indiana protest
Demonstrators gather at Monument Circle in Indianapolis to protest the religious freedom bill signed by Gov. Mike Pence, during a rally Saturday, March 28, 2015. A number of potential 2016 GOP candidates have voiced support for the controversial law. Reuters

Republicans with their eyes on the White House voiced their support for Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act this week amid national outrage over the law that critics say will let businesses discriminate against LGBT people. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida are among the likely GOP presidential contenders who have endorsed SB 101, raising questions about whether the Republican Party’s positions on gay marriage and civil rights have fallen too far from the mainstream as voters and state leaders increasingly embrace such policies. Gay rights are particularly important to young and independent voters, key demographics Republicans need to win in 2016.

Republicans faced a similar problem in 2012, when Democrats used the GOP's conservative positions on women's access to health care and immigration to turn out voters and secure a second term for President Barack Obama.

“It really does become this problem where you end up having this disconnect between a Republican Party that ... doesn’t seem to be in tune with the national political mood swing," said Andrew Dowdle, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas. “Even if voters aren’t consciously thinking about this in November of 2016, it really does end up creating an image of a Republican Party that is close to what happened after [2012 nominee] Mitt Romney’s statements about making the environment for illegal immigration so uncomfortable that they would want to deport themselves,” referring to Romney’s statement on “self-deportation” that Obama used to rally young and Hispanic voters.

Young voters support same-sex marriage at a much higher rate than the rest of the population. Nearly eight in 10 people between 18 and 29 said same-sex marriage should be legal, while 58 percent of Americans’ overall hold that view, according to a 2014 Gallup poll. Meanwhile, gay marriage is on the books in 38 states and the courts have upheld gay marriage in another seven states where further court action is pending, according to Freedom to Marry, an advocacy group. About 75 percent of Americans now live in a state where it is legal for gay couples to marry.

Republican Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed on Friday the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says that people, businesses and religious institutions have a defense against state laws that go against their religious beliefs. Pence himself is also weighing a 2016 presidential bid. Critics claimed the legislation opens the door to discrimination, giving the example of a florist who refuses to deny service to a gay couple on the grounds that gay marriage goes against the florist's religious views. But proponents say the bill protects such people and entities from engaging in activities that run counter to their religion.

“This has turned into a whole sort of civil rights issue about homosexuals and whether or not people are going to be refused service at a restaurant," said Katie Packer Gage, a Republican strategist. "But the bigger issue is somebody who their faith does not allow for marriage of people of the same sex, should they support people in those ceremonies?”

During a Monday appearance on Fox News, Rubio focused on the religious freedom aspect of the bill. “Nobody is saying that it should be legal to deny someone service at a restaurant or at a hotel because of their sexual orientation. I think that's a consensus view in America," Rubio said. "The flip side is, should a photographer be punished for refusing to do a wedding that their faith teaches them is not one that is valid in the eyes of God?"

Bush raised a similar point in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. “There are many cases where people acting on their conscience have been castigated by the government,” he said Monday night, according to the New York Times. “This is really an important value for our country, in a diverse country, where you can be tolerant of people’s lifestyles but allow people of faith to exercise theirs.”

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, an announced candidate, and retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, a likely one, also defended Indiana's law in an effort to win over the GOP's most loyal and conservative voters -- those who decide primary elections.

“I think there’s this perception among all of the contenders in the Republican Party that at least in the early primaries they all have to cater to the fringe of the party,” said Robert Boatright, a political science professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. “I don’t think the leading candidates will want to alienate Republican primary voters.”