Indiana Lawmakers Set Hearing on LGBT Rights Bills

Freedom Indiana
Freedom Indiana supporters rally at the statehouse in November; they will do so again next week.

LGBT rights bills will finally get a hearing in the Indiana legislature a week from today.

The Senate Rules and Legislative Procedure Committee will hold a hearing on two Republican-backed measures, neither of which has generated enthusiasm among LGBT activists, at 4 p.m. January 27, The Indianapolis Star reports.

One would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in such areas as employment, housing, and public accommodations, but would grant a broad exemption for faith-based discrimination. The other, which would more accurately be called an LGB rights bill, would address sexual orientation only and would also have a fairly broad religious exemption.

The issue came to prominence last year with the passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which LGBT advocates and allies said gave businesses and individuals a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people and others in the name of religion. The widespread criticism led the legislature to pass and Gov. Mike Pence to sign a “fix” to the law aimed at assuring it would not be used to discriminate and that it would not supersede any municipal antidiscrimination laws.

But that drove home the fact that state law does not ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, leading for a clamor for the legislature to expand the law.

LGBT rights activists have objected to the broad religious exemptions in the bills introduced so far, which they note treat sexual orientation and gender identity differently than race, religion, or gender, and to the fact that one excludes gender identity altogether. Religious conservatives worry that any LGBT rights law would interfere with religious freedom, perhaps forcing a business owner opposed to same-sex marriage to provide goods for a same-sex wedding. The religious exemptions in the bills seek to prevent that from happening, and Pence, a conservative Republican, has said that protecting religious freedom is his priority.

Freedom Indiana, the statewide LGBT rights group, will rally against the bills at the state capitol in Indianapolis at 12:15 p.m. on the 27th, followed by meetings with lawmakers, and the group also plans to have a large presence at the hearing.

Meanwhile, fallout from the RFRA controversy continues, the Star reports. A poll commissioned by Indianapolis’s tourism agency, Visit Indy, found that some negative feelings linger among those who might travel to the city. The poll looked at national meeting planners and Chicago residents, the latter being the most likely group to travel to Indianapolis for pleasure.

“Among the findings: only 45 percent of meeting decision makers and 43 percent of Chicago residents agreed that ‘Indy welcomes all,’ a phrase that last year became a slogan of tourism officials hoping to reverse perceptions that Indianapolis was unwelcoming to LGBT individuals,” the paper reports. “Asked if ‘Indiana welcomes all,’ the numbers who agreed dropped to 28 percent and 38 percent, respectively, suggesting that perceptions of the state are worse overall than for Indianapolis. Among meeting planners that didn’t book Indy, 23 percent said their ‘perception of the city’ was the reason.”

The survey didn’t ask about RFRA directly, so as not to bias results, but when meeting planners were asked what they’d heard about Indianapolis in the news recently, 58 percent of them “mentioned something related to RFRA or LGBT rights,” the Star notes.

“That stings,” Chris Gahl, Visit Indy’s vice president of marketing, told the newspaper. “That tells us that the wounds are still somewhat fresh from last spring. ... We thought that seven months later, the RFRA crisis would have died down and certainly would not have been able to be recalled to the degree of 58 percent.”