INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Senate Republicans released a proposal Tuesday that would extend state civil rights protections to LGBT people while also carving out broad exemptions for religious institutions and some small businesses that object to working with gay people.
Ever since controversy erupted last spring over a divisive religious objections law, business groups and other supporters of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights have pushed the Legislature to ban disicimination in housing, employment and public accommodation based on a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. Religious conservatives object because they believe it could force Christian businesses owners to violate sincerely held religious beliefs.
With activists from both sides descending on the Statehouse Tuesday as lawmakers gathered for Organization Day, Republican Senate President Pro Tem David Long said the bill sponsored by Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, is a good "first attempt" at bridging the gap.
"The goal is to provide some balance in this discussion with regard to discrimination, as well as religious liberty," said Long. "No doubt as any bill goes forward there will be some modifications as people weigh in on both sides of the issue."
So far, conservatives have expressed skepticism toward the plan, while a prominent LGBT rights group dismissed it as a "roadmap for discrimination"
Pastor John Lowe, of Warsaw, said many lawmakers have sought the religious vote and promised to stand with social conservatives during election seasons.
"Just like we voted them in, we will vote them out," said Lowe. "This is not a threat, but it is a promise."
Though the bill extends civil rights to LGBT people, it has notable exceptions. It would exempt wedding-related businesses with less than four employees from having to do work for a gay or lesbian couple. It would also exempt faith-based schools, adoption agencies and nonprofits from complying.
One provision would require transgender people to have established their gender identity for at least a year to pursue a discrimination complaint. The bill also explicitly states that it is not "discriminatory" for businesses and organizations to enforce rules and policies related to the use of bathrooms, dressing rooms and showers by transgendered people.
Additionally, Long says it would overturn a patchwork of municipal ordinances addressing the issue in favor of one consistent standard across the state.
"We're considering it a roadmap for discrimination and not a set of meaningful protections for LGBT people," said Jennifer Pizer, a lawyer for Lambda Legal, which supports gay rights.
For example, Pizer said, it would allow a Catholic hospital to fire a lesbian doctor. It also bans the state from withholding tax benefits, contracts and other benefits from religious organizations. That could allow social service providers with state contracts to turn away gays and lesbians, Pizer said.
What remains unclear is whether the proposal is supported by the broader GOP-controlled Legislature or Republican Gov. Mike Pence, who said Tuesday morning that he hadn't closely studied and wouldn't comment. For months, Pence has issued similar responses when asked for his thoughts on LGBT rights, prompting Democrats to accuse him of ducking tough questions.
Long said Pence is "obviously aware" of the Senate bill and "can speak for himself." But he added that "I hope we've prepared a document that addresses all concerns on this issue."
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma is calling for a civil discussion about LGBT civil rights, but noted that "doing nothing is always an option."
Democrats, meanwhile, said the bill needs to be carefully studied so that it can be determined what exactly it does — and doesn't — do.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane said he has some concerns because the long list of exemptions could create winners and losers.
"Do you have to have a bona fide religious belief? Or could you just be, 'No I just don't like certain marriages?" Lanane asked.