Columns

Gay Rights and Religious Freedom: Is Indiana Ready to Go Down This Road Again?

Indiana Republicans are poised to go where Gov. Mike Pence must wish they had never gone before. The issue that wrecked any hope Pence had of running for the White House is back. And Pence has only the GOP to thank for it.

Sen. Travis Holdman (R) has introduced a proposal aimed at ending LGBT discrimination in Indiana, while at the same time holding out an olive branch of exemptions for churches and small businesses that might not want to be patronized by lesbians, gays, bisexuals and the transgendered.

Critics are already lining up on the left, calling it a blueprint for discrimination.

Critics on the right are accusing Republicans of abandoning their cause of religious liberty and freedom.

Holdman told reporters when he unveiled the legislation Nov. 17 “it will become the law of the land in Indiana.”

Good luck with that, Gov. Pence must be thinking.

Pence ignited a conflagration of protests from LBGT advocates in March 2015 when he signed a controversial religious liberties law. Some say the Religious Freedom Restoration Act led to the end of his presidential aspirations – at the very least, what followed was a decline in his poll numbers at home.

The law would have prohibited the Indiana government from forcing a business to serve LGBT people unless it could be proven there was a compelling government interest to force the business do to otherwise.

What it actually did was enrage civil rights activists, the LGBT community, and the leaders of major corporations who all threatened to boycott the state of Indiana. Pence eventually signed a revision of the RFRA that made it clear the law could not be used to discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered people.

Holdman does not foresee either side of this debate becoming so enraged over his legislation that Indiana is again thrust into an international human rights spotlight.

He believes the legislation would cover all the bases. Holdman pointed out it forbids LGBT discrimination but at the same time has a loophole though which small businesses and churches can slide in the name of religious freedom.

Senate President David Long (R) told reporters during the legislature’s Organization Day activities Nov. 17 he thought Holdman’s proposal was a good “first attempt” that should provide some “balance” to the discussion of how best to end sexual and gender identification discrimination.

However, he also said a heated debate should be expected.

“No doubt as any bill goes forward there will be some modifications as people weigh in on both sides of the issue,” Long said.

Long hit that nail on the head hard enough to hammer it home in a 2×4 with one stroke.

Both sides of this debate are more than ready to “weigh in.” Conservatives and liberals have agreed on one thing: they don’t like this legislation, at least not as it is written. And they don’t much care for what they see as the motivation behind the bill, either.

The conservative Indiana Pastors Alliance held a rally Nov. 17 that attracted more than 1,000 people who were all opposed to the legislation, while Freedom Indiana, a pro-LGBT rights group, drew 5,000 people who were also all opposed to Holdman’s brainstorm to another rally.

“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), one of the legislature’s leading conservative voices, told the Indianapolis Star.

“Admit we made a mistake, apologize to the public and move on,” Delph said. “Otherwise we’re going to continue stirring up the outhouse, stinking up the whole farm.”

On the other side of the spectrum, there was an equal amount of displeasure with Holdman’s attempt to navigate LGBT rights and religious freedom in the Hoosier State.

“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,” Jennifer Pizer, law and policy project director at Lambda Legal, wrote in an open letter to Gov. Pence and the Indiana Legislature.

“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,” she added. “It aims to write separate, lesser protections for LGBT people into state law.”

So what does Gov. Pence think of Holdman’s proposal?

Pence told reporters he hadn’t seen the legislation yet, and preferred to study it before offering an opinion.

The Indiana Democratic Party issued a statement immediately after Pence said that, accusing the state’s chief executive of merely trying to duck a debate over whether civil rights protections should be extended to the Hoosier LGBT community.

In the end, the Indiana Legislature could debate the measure with the goal of coming to a compromise between reasonable people.

But there is another choice.

As Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said, “Doing nothing is always an option.”