(Yesterday GOP presidential candidate Bobby Jindal suspended his campaign as noted here. – Admin.)
By Tony Cook, Stephanie Wang and Chelsea Schneider
Republicans unveil sexual orientation, gender identity bill
In the opening salvo of what is likely to be a long and arduous debate, Indiana Senate Republicans introduced legislation Tuesday that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s civil rights laws while carving out several exemptions for those with strong religious objections.
The measure would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people against discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.
But exemptions would allow schools, employers and others to determine their own restroom policies for transgender people; businesses with fewer than four employees to refuse wedding services to same-sex couples; and religious-affiliated adoption agencies to reject prospective same-sex parents.
“This bill is an attempt to balance civil rights and religious liberty,” Senate President Pro Tempore David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said in announcing the proposal.
Several legal experts who reviewed the proposed legislation described it as a serious attempt to balance religious interests and LGBT rights, but the measure immediately drew criticism from advocates on both sides of the issue.
“This is a useful contribution and a proposal that should be taken seriously — but is likely not to be the final word,” said Indiana University Maurer School of Law Professor Daniel Conkle. “A lot of this will be controversial in the particulars.”
Some LGBT advocates said the proposal’s religious exemptions treat sexual orientation and gender identity differently than other protected classes.
“This bill is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, This doesn’t protect LGBT people — it is a road map for discrimination against LGBT people,” said Jennifer Pizer, law and policy project director at Lambda Legal. “It aims to guarantee the right of some medical, social services and other institutions to discriminate against married same-sex couples, and to do so with taxpayer dollars. It aims to write separate, lesser protections for LGBT people into state law.”
But the proposal also drew the ire of religious conservatives, who fear any protections for LGBT Hoosiers would interfere with their Christian beliefs.
“If I’m a person of faith and I own a business and I have four employees and I want to add a fifth one, I have to choose government or God,” said Monica Boyer, a tea party organizer from Kosciusko County who brought two busloads of people to rally at the Statehouse on Tuesday.
Long said the 20-page measure, known as Senate Bill 100, is intended to be a “comprehensive” approach to a myriad of controversial issues surrounding gay marriage and civil rights.
“There are parts of this bill that are dealing with some of the struggles we are seeing today, in particular with the gender identity issue,” he said. “We are making sure we give our businesses and our schools and our public institutions the ability to define who can and cannot use the bathroom. Those are difficult issues that are in very real-time today. This bill does attempt to address that in a way that has common sense associated with it, that makes sure we are not creating havoc in our public restrooms, particularly for our schoolchildren.”
The bill explicitly protects religious leaders such as pastors, priests and rabbis from being required to perform marriages for same-sex couples. It also includes exceptions for churches and religious-affiliated institutions such as private universities, adoption agencies and day care providers.
Transgender people would be required to live as their preferred gender for a year or receive a medical opinion before filing a discrimination complaint.
The measure would also create a $1,000 penalty for “frivolous” discrimination complaints and prohibit local governments from enacting stricter non-discrimination ordinances.
IU McKinney School of Law Professor Robert Katz said offering religious exemptions up front could be seen by some as problematic.
“This is a starting point, but it’s unlikely it will answer the concerns raised about LGBT rights at the end of last session,” he said.
Efforts to expand Indiana’s civil rights laws took off earlier this year amid a national firestorm over the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That law set a judicial standard for weighing religious objections but prompted boycotts and event cancellations amid concerns it would allow businesses to turn away gay couples for religious reasons.
Gov. Mike Pence and lawmakers quickly sought a legislative “fix” to prevent the law from being used to circumvent local nondiscrimination ordinances. But the furor drew attention to Indiana’s lack of statewide LGBT protections.
Business groups and others say expanded protections are needed to restore the state’s reputation as a welcoming place.
Michael O’Connor, a lobbyist for drug maker Eli Lilly and Co., praised the early introduction of a bill that will give all sides weeks to analyze and debate.
“They intend this to be an open and involved process, so we at Lilly appreciate that,” he said.
But if dueling rallies at the Statehouse on Tuesday were any indication, lawmakers are likely to find themselves walking a political tightrope. Freedom Indiana, a pro-LGBT group, delivered 5,000 letters to lawmakers supporting expanded protections, while the socially conservative Indiana Pastors Alliance and other opponents held a Statehouse rally that drew more than 1,000 people.
It was not immediately clear whether the proposal would gain support from Democrats or a majority of Republicans.
Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, applauded Republicans for “entering the debate in a detailed manner” and said he would review the measure.
“What I do know is that Hoosiers do not condone discrimination and will not accept half measures or carve-outs,” he said. “Our duty remains. We must send the strongest, most clear message; Indiana must move beyond RFRA and discrimination in any form will not be tolerated.”
Long and the bill’s author, Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, may also have trouble wrangling the Senate’s more conservative members.
“My view remains that if it is a perception issue they’re trying to address, that we should take a step back, look at what happened and repeal everything we did last year,” Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, said. “Admit we made a mistake, apologize to the public and move on. Otherwise we’re going to continue stirring up the outhouse, stinking up the whole farm.”
The top House Republican gave the measure a lukewarm reception.
“There’s no simple conclusion here,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis. “Doing nothing is always an option … but I suspect we need to have a conversation, if nothing else.”
Poll results released Tuesday indicate a majority of Hoosier voters still support adding protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The poll was commissioned by former Angie’s List chief Bill Oesterle, who formed a group called Tech for Equality to advocate for an expansion of protections for gay and transgender Hoosiers. A poll he sponsored in June showed similar results.
“This consistency indicates stability of opinion, with intensity definitely on the side of those who support this change,” said Republican pollster Christine Matthews, who conducted the poll.
About 55 percent of Hoosier voters said they support expanding the state’s anti-discrimination laws, with 33 percent indicating they would oppose the policy change. Twelve percent of voters remain unsure.
The poll also found 47 percent of voters would be more likely to support a gubernatorial candidate who backed the expanded protections. That represents an increase from June, when 45 percent of voters offered the same response.
Pence has said for months that he is studying the issue but remained silent Tuesday, declining to answer questions about the bill’s details.
His spokesman, Matt Lloyd, emailed the following statement: “The governor will certainly give careful consideration to this and any other legislative proposal put forth by the Indiana General Assembly.”
(Call Star reporter Tony Cook at (317) 444-6081. Follow him on Twitter: @indystartony.)