Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) could be faced again with one of the most contentious issues of his administration, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
On top of the international furor the RFRA created, a study shows it cost the state millions of dollars in lost revenue.
Now, here the Hoosiers go again. The controversy has rekindled and is close to full flame.
SB 344, approved by the state Senate Rules Committee in late January, would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment, and public accommodation.
There are exceptions in the legislation for small businesses, religious groups, faith-based nonprofit organizations and adoption agencies. Here’s the kicker: Republicans on the committee included an amendment that would repeal the Indiana RFRA.
In March 2015, the RFRA prompted Apple CEO Tim Cook to compare Indiana with Saudi Arabia, led the CEO of Angie’s List to decide not to build a corporate headquarters in Indianapolis, and even, some said, derailed Pence’s plans to run for the White House in 2016.
It was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that seemed to rouse the world against Pence and Indiana. At the heart of the tumult was the issue of how to protect the civil rights of LGBT people in Indiana in 2015 without impinging on the religious freedoms of others.
Even though the RFRA was approved, amended and signed by Gov. Pence, the issues at the heart of the debate were not settled. So they are once more before the state’s legislature.
The Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act was meant to protect people such as a baker who might not want to make a wedding cake for a gay couple by invoking a claim of religious liberty or freedom.
Opponents said, when it was debated and approved in March 2015, the RFRA did nothing but legalize discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Less than a month after it was passed, an amendment was added so that the RFRA could not supersede local ordinances in Indiana that protected gay rights.
The problem was only 11 communities, including Indianapolis, protected those rights. In the rest of Indiana, nothing forbade LGBT discrimination.
“Given what this community has done to be a welcoming place for everybody, it’s just so painful to see this,” Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co. and owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, told USA Today after the RFRA was signed by Pence.
The RFRA was not only an emotional issue for the Hoosier State, but the act turned out to be a very expensive piece of legislation.
Visit Indy, the state’s nonprofit tourism development agency, issued a report in late January showing Indianapolis missed out on as many as a dozen conventions and the state’s economy lost $60 million because of the law and the debate that surrounded it.
However, Visit Indy also reported it booked a record number of hotel rooms in 2015. Doesn’t that conflict with the assertion the RFRA hurt Indiana?
Chris Gahl, the vice president of marketing for Visit Indy, told the Associated Press there was no guesswork involved in the report. He said Visit Indy asked 12 groups why they didn’t pick Indianapolis for their conventions and they said it was because of the RFRA.
“In some cases, it was the only reason. In other cases, it was one of a handful of reasons,” he said. “But in all 12, it was proactively brought up as a blockade from booking in Indianapolis.”
Visit Indy CEO Leonard Hoops told the Indiana Business Journal the number of hotel rooms booked by groups from outside Indiana dropped by more than 100,000 in 2015, and he blamed that on the aftermath of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act controversy.
You’d think if the RFRA really were a money pit for Indiana, Visit Indy would love SB 344, right? Wrong.
“One concern we have is putting the international media spotlight back on the state of Indiana and our Statehouse, which could cause the misperception that Indianapolis is not hospitable,” said Gahl.
Kara Brooks, Pence’s press secretary, told PJM it would be a mistake to argue the RFRA and the debate that surrounded it hurt Indiana’s economy.
“Indiana is an open and welcoming state that respects everyone and anybody who does not know that does not know Indiana. The state’s economy remains strong with more people working today than ever before in our state’s history,” she said in a statement to PJM.
“In addition, FFA (Future Farmers of America) announced this summer it will hold its convention in Indianapolis for the next nine years, the NFL Combine announced last week it will stay in Indianapolis through 2020, GenCon will be expanding to Lucas Oil Stadium this summer and the Indy Pride will host its international conference here in 2017,” Brooks added.
Gahl can’t like this. It isn’t going to be a quick debate. Democrats don’t plan to support SB 344. Republicans might not, either.
Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane said the legislation is better than the RFRA, but the legislature should not take the “T” out of “LGBT” when it comes to civil rights protection.
“Almost equal rights. Allowing ‘a little bit’ of discrimination – as under SB 344 – won’t cut it,” he said.
However, groups like the American Family Association maintain there is a strong base of support in Indiana for the RFRA.
Daniel O. Conkle, an Indiana University law professor, wrote in an op-ed for the Indy Star that repealing the state’s RFRA would be a mistake.
“Repealing RFRA would place Indiana in a unique and unhappy position in the history of religious freedom, making it the first state in the nation ever to take such a step,” he wrote. “The RFRA standard is a better way to protect religious freedom. And because of the ‘fix,’ there is no reason to be concerned about competing civil rights.”
Guess what? A business group pushing for LGBT rights doesn’t like it either. Did you notice what was missing from the LGBT protection in SB344? It does not prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.
No protection for the transgendered means it is no good, in the opinion of Indiana Competes leader Peter Hanscom.
“We will not support a final bill that does not provide for equal rights for the entire LGBT community,” Hanscom said in a statement.
Assuming it makes it through the legislature, Pence will again be faced with taking a stand on gay rights versus religious freedom. When asked if he would support the legislation, Brooks would only tell PJM, “Gov. Pence made his position clear during his State of the State Address.”
“He will give careful consideration to any legislation from the General Assembly and the legislation must be consistent with Indiana’s Constitution,” she added.
But while Pence and the Indiana Legislature decide what to do about the RFRA debate 2.0, newly elected Kokomo Common Council member Steve Whikehart wants to put his city on the state’s map as the 12th Indiana community that adequately protects lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights.
Whikehart, who was voted into office in November, told the Kokomo Tribune he isn’t sure when he will move to amend the city’s human rights municipal code, but believes it has to happen.
“I can’t believe that in 2016 we continue to have a class of marginalized citizens,” Whikehart said. “It blows my mind.”