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Showdown Begins Over LGBT Rights in Indiana

AP PHOTO

The battle for LGBT nondiscrimination protections is flaring up in Indiana today as the state legislature convenes to organize in preparation for next year's session. Opponents and supporters of the measure are facing off in dueling rallies at the Statehouse while lawmakers work to find a bipartisan solution that balances Democrats' press for full equality and Republicans' concerns about "religious liberty."

Republican Senate President Pro Tem David Long confirmed Monday that a bill will be heard during the 2016 session. “We’re trying to do our best to get a balanced piece of legislation,” Long said during the Indiana Chamber of Commerce’s annual legislative preview luncheon. “It will be comprehensive.”

Religious leaders and antigay activists around the state have spread rumors that lawmakers plan to introduce, have hearings on, and pass LGBT nondiscrimination protections today. While it's technically possible for a law to be passed in a single day, legislators do not hear legislation on Organization Day.

Both Republican and Democrat leaders have said the rumor, perpetuated by Eric Miller, one of the state's foremost antigay activists, as a "sneak attack," is false. Republican state senator Brandt Hershman went so far as to publicly challenge Miller to bet $10,000 that the legislature will not advance a LGBT rights bill today; Miller refused to accept the wager. The money would have gone to charity.

Supporters of LGBT protections are also rallying on the Statehouse lawn. Supporters of non-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people dropped off more than 5,000 letters to lawmakers Tuesday morning, while the Indiana Pastors Alliance gathered about 100 advocates of religious liberty to pray and sing hymns inside the Statehouse, reported the Indianapolis Star. 

Following the state's controversial passage of a "religious freedom" bill that would have allowed businesses to actively discriminate against LGBT people, outraged activists and the media castigated state political leaders for promoting bigotry against the LGBT community. Several organizations canceled plans for conferences in the state, businesses put expansion or relocation plans on hold, and celebrities canceled planned appearances.

Governor Mike Pence, once considered a potential presidential candidate, supported the bill and became the face of the measure after refusing to answer whether the law would legalize discrimination during an interview on national television. Lawmakers quickly passed new legislation to "fix" the law to specify that it couldn't be used to discriminate against LGBT people after national outcry, but fallout from the law had already caused an incredible amount of economic and public relations damage.

House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath said the state needs to pass protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity to move past the controversy. “It’s simple. It’s passable, and most of all it will put this issue behind Indiana. Get it over with,” he urged. “It would be, long term, the best political thing for everybody to do, but it would also be the right thing to do.”

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma, who has long opposed any measure to improve the lives of LGBT Hoosiers, wasn't as supportive of the proposed legislation but seemed resigned to the bill's introduction. “It will be a big challenge,” Bosma told the Journal Gazette, adding that “we will not be blackmailed into a policy-making decision. Elected officials will not be bullied or badgered.”

“With the state’s top businesses, a majority of Hoosiers, and even the media calling for across the board protections for the LGBT community, Mike Pence’s negligence on one of today’s top issues puts him on the verge of once again embarrassing the state of Indiana,” said Drew Anderson, communications director for the Indiana Democratic Party, in an emailed statement. “But after putting Indiana in a $250 million economic panic this spring, Hoosiers know what kind of governor Mike Pence truly is for them. Pence’s agenda is one kneejerk reaction after another that consistently sides with his out-of-touch ideology."

The Indiana legislature will officially reconvene on January 5.

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