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A bill that would provide some protections for lesbians, gays and bisexuals — but not transgender Hoosiers — squeaked out of an Indiana Senate committee Wednesday night.
But no one on any side of the highly contentious debate seems particularly pleased with the heavily amended measure, which faces an uncertain future as it heads to the full Senate for more heated wrangling early next week.
Democrats slammed the measure, Senate Bill 344, for excluding transgender Hoosiers and even the seven GOP lawmakers who voted for it expressed reservations.
“It is going to go to the floor of the Senate where there will be a robust debate and its fate is unknown,” Senate President Pro Tempore David Long said. “We don’t know what will be the outcome, but we’ll have the discussion and we’ll see where it goes.”
Several lawmakers said their votes represented an effort to continue the conversation about gay rights — not necessarily support for the current proposal.
The measure passed 7-5, with all four Democrats on the committee and a sole Republican — Sen. Dennis Kruse of Auburn — voting against it.
During the hearing, lawmakers surprisingly added to the bill a repeal of last year’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the “fix” that quickly followed it.
If adopted, the changes would make Indiana the first state in the nation to repeal a RFRA law, according to one legal scholar. It also would represent a stunning reversal for leaders of the Republican-controlled Senate, who pushed hard to pass RFRA despite concerns that it could allow businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples.
Long and his fellow Republicans made it clear they want to put the negative perceptions created by the RFRA furor behind them. But impassioned testimony during the five-hour hearing also made it clear that the political atmosphere is still clouded by extreme feelings and fears on both sides.
Republican committee members also added adoption and crisis pregnancy centers to the list of organizations and businesses that would still be allowed to discriminate against LGBT people under the proposal. Another change would also allow faith-based groups, such as homeless shelters, to discriminate even if they aren’t affiliated with a church.
Democrats objected to those carve-outs.
“Once we create loopholes, people take advantage of them,” Senate Minority Leader Timothy Lanane, D-Anderson, said.
The bill already had allowed small wedding service providers and religious-affiliated organizations to discriminate against gays and lesbians. But it also adds sexual orientation to Indiana’s civil rights laws, protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.
Sen. Travis Holdman, a Markle Republican who introduced the bill, said he has been torn by the issue. As an evangelical Christian, he said he has “grave concerns about religious liberties.”
“That’s been a very difficult balance to find,” he said.
LGBT advocacy groups and business groups such as the Indy Chamber were not satisfied with the measure, which they felt didn’t go far enough to protect LGBT Hoosiers.
“Lawmakers still aren’t listening,” said Freedom Indiana campaign manager Chris Paulsen in a statement. “Tonight, they took a bad bill and made it worse for LGBT people in our state who have to live each day in fear that they could be fired, denied housing or turned away from a public place for who they are.”
Social conservative advocacy groups also criticized the bill, saying any protections for LGBT people would conflict with their Christian beliefs.
“We’ll continue to oppose it and see if we can talk reason to more senators,” said Curt Smith, president of the Indiana Family Institute.
Two out-of-state business owners who faced backlash after declining to provide services to same-sex weddings warned lawmakers against passing the civil rights protections.
Barronelle Stutzman, a Washington state florist sued for declining a gay couple services for their wedding, emotionally recalled the story.
She remembers telling the client, “I cannot do your wedding because of my relationship with Jesus Christ…I did not turn down Rob. I turned down an event.”
Stutzman said she received death threats, bomb threats and had to change her security system.
Melissa Klein, who owned a bakery in Oregon, was fined by that state after refusing to bake a cake for a lesbian wedding. Klein said her conscience wouldn’t allow her to do the wedding because of her belief in traditional marriage.
However, top business leaders in the state asked lawmakers to pass unqualified LGBT protections. They said it’s the right thing to do and necessary to restore the state’s damaged reputation after RFRA.
Kevin Brinegar, president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said the organization supports LGBT rights. He said the chamber usually doesn’t offer opinions on social issues but the lack of LGBT protections has “profound and ongoing ramifications.”
Brinegar said Indiana’s brand was “significantly harmed” by the RFRA debate.
Scott McCorkle, CEO of Salesforce Marketing Cloud, said SB 344 is unacceptable because it leaves out protections for transgender individuals. McCorkle said that repealing RFRA reopens much of the arguments of last year’s debate.
“Therefore I speak to you today with grave concerns about the economic future of our state,” he said.
McCorkle said Indiana is still “reeling” from the damage he feels was caused by RFRA, and that he supported the “fix” to ensure the law couldn’t be used to discriminate against individuals based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
He said repealing RFRA and the subsequent “fix” threatens to “take us back to that dark moment in Indiana history.”
Transgender military veteran Rhiannon Carlson asked lawmakers to include protections for transgender people.
She said stigma made her want to commit “suicide by war” and be remembered as a hero instead of a disgrace.
“I hoped that service could fix me,” she said, “to be the man everyone wanted me to be.”
She said adding transgender protections to Indiana law would go a long way toward helping others in her position.
Republicans had also proposed another plan, Senate Bill 100, that would have included transgender protections. But they did not advance that measure, largely because of controversy over the use of bathrooms by transgender people.
Star reporter Brian Eason contributed to this story.
HOW THEY VOTED
Here’s how members of the Indiana Senate Rules Committee voted on Senate Bill 344, which would provide some protection against discrimination for lesbians, gays and bisexuals.
Republicans: David Long, Fort Wayne; Brent Steele, Bedford; James Merritt, Indianapolis; Brandt Hershman, Buck Creek; Doug Eckerty, Yorktown; Ed Charbonneau, Valparaiso; Travis Holdman, Markle
Democrats: Tim Lanane, Anderson; Jim Arnold, LaPorte; Jean Breaux, Indianapolis; Karen Tallian, Portage
Republican: Dennis Kruse, AuburnSHARE THIS STORY