Indiana sets itself back with law, misses point with fix


It took Indiana generations to rid itself of the Ku Klux Klan image indelibly etched in the 1920s and 30s by a murderous bed sheet salesman who declared “I am the law” in the state. Even now a residue of that bigotry unfairly clings to the Hoosier reputation like a stench of excrement that somehow won’t seem to go away.

Many years after the Klan’s hold on the state was broken, my father refused to allow my newly minted lawyer brother to interview with a firm from a town where a lynching had taken place. Dad, himself a product of southern antecedents and a lifelong Republican, spoke bitterly about a community that would allow such an atrocity.

“No son of mine…” he said, leaving the rest silent but understood. Mike canceled the interview.

It is the possible lasting damage to the state psyche that makes the latest episode of intolerance this time aimed at same-sex love so potentially devastating. Is Indiana truly the welcoming place I always believed it was or are its attitudes hopelessly rooted in fundamental intolerance?

Naively perhaps I prefer to believe the latter is not true but that the question arises solely from the misjudgment of a minority of individuals dedicated to trying to tell their friends and neighbors how to live and to enforce that through transparently discriminatory concepts. But as Lincoln said, you can’t fool the people all the time no matter how you try to camouflage your true intent.

This was brought about by a governor who wants to be president and a legislature his party controls that probably ended that notion by giving him the opportunity to make a national fool of himself. The question remains whether the “fix” hurriedly cobbled together under the growing specter of economic disaster and public outrage will work to quiet the furor. The clarification to the religious freedom act was merely an advisement that the law does not allow a denial of services to gays or lesbian couples.

Should the better solution have been a complete repeal of what clearly was an attempt to appease those who oppose same-sex marriage by giving their religious beliefs a legitimate defense against lawsuits by those who have been discriminated against? Several groups think so, leaving the impression that battle for equal treatment of gays and lesbians is not over, even though the bet is that the U.S. Supreme Court this year will make same-sex marriage the law of the land.

One might be inclined to thank Indiana Gov. Mike Pence for signing this hot potato. Because of the backlash, most experienced politicians would have seen a mile off, several other states controlled by Republican social conservatives have revised their thinking. Arkansas GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson ordered changes similar to those made to the Indiana Law after seeing how Pence fared and receiving a warning from the State’s largest employer, Walmart.

Pence, a former congressman, also managed to put the Republicans where they didn’t want to be. That was smack dab in the middle of a cultural divide that pits moderate and practical conservative members against the ideologically driven far right with its 19th century social agenda generally considered poison in a general election.

As one whose roots reach as deeply into the rich Indiana soil as is possible, I was appalled at the insensitivity of those now running the state. At a time when the so-called “Rust Belt” has left former Midwest Gothams in shambles, Indianapolis has become a shining success — a city nearly unmatched in its hospitable atmosphere and its municipal savvy. It is almost unparalleled as a sports Mecca supported by top-notch arenas, hotels, first-rate restaurants and medical facilities.

The current mayor — in a long line of excellent city executives dating to former Sen. Richard Luger — is a practical Republican who expressed dismay at the state’s action. He rightfully regarded it as a threat to his city’s continued prosperity which has been based necessarily on a tolerance for all.

Down the road a piece from the capitol is 181-year old Franklin College, where a new president will be installed soon. The Board of Trustees of which I am a member voted unanimously last winter to hire a brilliant vice president of highly-regarded American University. He happens to be gay and married. Who cares? He was head and shoulders above the other 60 or so applicants. That’s what counts, Gov. Pence. That’s the other side of the Hoosier coin.