Battle in small town signals upcoming statewide debate
How a small Indiana city became a gay rights battleground
By Stephanie Wang
GOSHEN — In a cradle of conservatism about 150 miles northeast of Indianapolis, a powerful lobbyist stood up inside a church and declared Elkhart County the next political battleground in Indiana.
What happens in Elkhart and Goshen with gay rights, he said, would set the stage for what could happen statewide.
“You’re in the middle of this,” conservative lobbyist Eric Miller of Advance America told the Calvary Assembly of God, according to The Elkhart Truth, “and you can make a difference.”
But it is his influence — and that of other outsiders — that makes what is happening in Elkhart and Goshen so unlike what has transpired in several other communities that have amended local laws to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers from discrimination.
Advocates are gearing up to push for statewide inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes — what they see as a next step in the LGBT rights fight — to ensure those characteristics cannot be reasons for firing people from their jobs, denying housing or education opportunities, or refusing services.
Others, including Miller, contend that would give LGBT Hoosiers “special rights” at the expense of the devoutly religious who oppose same-sex marriages.
With both sides eager to chalk up a win and seize the momentum, the local policy debate in Elkhart County has become strident — with accusations of scare tactics and intimidation. In a new twist, for example, some charge that gender identity protections could allow predatory men to enter women’s bathrooms.
Left in the middle is the small, conflicted town of Goshen — population 32,000, described by many as a purple spot in a red county and mired in the tug of culture wars.
Behind the flare of politics, this is a place where some, including the Mennonite institution of Goshen College, grapple with this gay rights issue in a quieter kind of way, stuck between both believing all people should be treated equally and yet holding steadfast to Bible teachings that homosexuality is a sin.
Look in the window of Goshen Floral and Gift Shop, for example, where there is no sticker, no declaration that the business will welcome everyone.
The shop owner, 61-year-old Sally Stutsman, describes herself as a strong, faithful Christian, and in some ways, she’s torn.
Not about same-sex marriage — she opposes that, listens to her pastor at the First United Methodist Church preach against it.
“In my opinion, it’s not right. I know how I feel about things,” she said. “But that’s between them and God, not between them and me.”
When women have come in to send flowers to other women, or men send flowers to other men, Stutsman said it makes her uncomfortable. But she still makes the sale.
“I’m not going to seek that business,” she said. “But if someone walks in, I’m not going to turn them away.”
But how much of a say will Goshen actually have in this political fight?
A once-homogenous community, Goshen has shifted under fast-growing diversity. An invigorated downtown flourishes alongside one of the country’s largest 4-H county fairs.
Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman, a Democrat making his exit after 18 years of leading the city, isn’t sure he has the votes to expand civil rights protections.
In fact, the simple math says the odds don’t fall in his favor — on a measure that failed before in 2009.
The city council is a 4-to-3 Republican majority, in an election year with every seat up for grabs.
And during their last election campaigns, all four Republican council members signed onto a letter pledging not to change Goshen’s anti-discrimination ordinance. They said they did not support “discrimination towards anyone, at any time, or any place,” but felt the ordinance was “adequate” without making additions.
Ahead of Tuesday’s scheduled discussion, Goshen City Council President Jim McKee, a Republican, said he hoped the mayor would table the proposal — as neighboring Democrat Mayor Dick Moore did last week in Elkhart.
“There’s a lot of turmoil and things going on right now,” McKee said, citing Goshen’s other foray into the culture wars, the school board’s recent decision to retire its high school Redskins mascot. “I think we could spend a little time looking at it, and maybe it wouldn’t be such a contentious issue.”
Goshen’s proposal lacks the enforcement teeth of laws protecting individuals from discrimination based on race and religion, and the mayor acknowledges it may have to be weakened further to persuade a Republican council member to support it.
The city’s political divide is likely part of what makes Goshen “ground zero” for this debate, experts say.
Changing the ordinance is “not necessarily something that is blatantly partisan,” said Andy Downs, a political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. “But when you have the opportunity to make it partisan, you can.”
People won’t want to see Goshen Republicans flip-flop on the issue after they signed the promise not to update the ordinance, Downs said — which McKee noted could raise distrust.
But in the larger picture, stakeholders are keeping score. Goshen could be a baby step — or even a win — for either side, Downs said.
“There will be groups throughout the entire state who say, ‘Wait a minute. We can’t lose there. Maybe we don’t have to win there, but we can’t lose there,’” Downs said. “Because that starts a domino effect that could be bad for either side.”
A flier circulated by Miller warns of the “disastrous impact” of adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the nondiscrimination ordinance.
The inclusion of sexual orientation, he said, threatens Christian business owners such as bakers, florists and photographers who may not want to serve same-sex couples’ weddings because of their religious beliefs.
That has been a long-standing religious freedom argument. But now conservative lobbyists have also started focusing their news bulletins on concerns over gender identity protections allowing transgender women to use women’s restrooms.
“Protecting women, children and ministries,” Miller’s flier was titled, warning that the proposed ordinance addition could “give men, including sexual predators, (rapists and child molesters), legal access to women’s and girl’s restrooms, women’s dressing rooms and women’s shower areas placing women and children in Goshen at grave risk of harm!”
Miller did not return a message seeking comment.
Monica Boyer, an Indiana Tea Party activist and founder of the Indiana Religious Freedom Alliance, said the proposed ordinance language presents a “public health and public safety” issue.
“If a man wakes up feeling like a woman one morning,” she said, “there’s nothing to prevent him from going into a women’s bathroom. It doesn’t even have to be an LGBT issue. If a sexual predator is out there, he will have full access to a women’s bathroom.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana said that’s a scare tactic — and a message that it expects religious freedom advocates to rely on heavily as the debate continues.
“What is illegal now is still illegal,” said Katie Blair, ACLU of Indiana’s director of advocacy. “So someone being sexually assaulted in a restroom is still illegal.”
She also took issue with the argument “painting transgender people in the light of being sexual predators,” she said.
The pressure from statewide lobbyists, such as Miller, is stirring confusion in Goshen, said Kauffman, the mayor: “We have more to fear from fear mongers than we do the outcome of this ordinance.”
The least civil discourse, he said, comes from outside the community, with the city receiving hundreds of emails “about pedophiles and rapists.”
He said he hopes Tuesday’s council discussion will prioritize the concerns of those who live, work and vote in Goshen.
“We don’t have to give Eric Miller a soapbox to stand on,” Kauffman said. “And if he doesn’t get to speak in Goshen, that would be just fine with me. And if he does get to speak, I’m not sure what I’m going to say to him.”
But the heated spotlight is exactly what makes McKee, the council Republican, want to slow the process down and “talk intelligibly about what we’re trying to accomplish here.”
“I think we could be a little more educated, all of us,” he said.
In the floral shop on Lincoln Highway, Sally Stutsman has thought a lot about this possible scenario:
What if two brides came in wanting wedding flowers? Or two grooms?
There’s another florist down the road who says she has happily made wedding arrangements for same-sex couples. But Stutsman said she doesn’t know how she would handle it.
In her shop, a tapestry hangs stitched with the words to Amazing Grace, near a shelf filled with little angel statutes to send with flowers as keepsakes.
She doesn’t tell people this, but Stutsman prays as she puts flowers together. She takes it personally, especially if it’s people she knows — and in Goshen, she said, everyone knows everyone.
Over casket sprays, she prays for peace, strength and comfort for the family. Over a bride’s bouquet, she prays for happily ever after.
“It’s rare these days, but it still happens,” she said.
Stutsman said she thinks it’s her legal right as a business owner to turn away a customer. She doesn’t want to sound wishy-washy, but she’s torn over whether she would be able to sell flowers for a same-sex couple’s wedding.
“It’s a real struggle as a Christian,” she said, “to be accepting of everybody, but not approve. You want to be loving and accepting. But I still have very strong feelings against it.”