2014 Indiana General Assembly

Indiana dips toe in national debate over religious liberty, discrimination

2014-03-03T00:00:00Z 2014-03-03T14:50:06Z Indiana dips toe in national debate over religious liberty, discriminationDan Carden dan.carden@nwi.com, (317) 637-9078 nwitimes.com
March 03, 2014 12:00 am  • 

INDIANAPOLIS | Indiana lawmakers last week nearly jumped on a bandwagon of states seeking to add measures that some contend legitimize discrimination under the guise of religious liberty.

The General Assembly entered the new frays days after an attempt to add a referendum to the November ballot that could rule gay marriage unconstitutional in the state was delayed.

It started innocently enough, according to House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.

Indiana Wesleyan University, a Christian college with a Merrillville location that hires employees on the basis of religion — as permitted by federal law — wanted to continue receiving state workforce training grants.

The Indiana attorney general's office recently determined the school's religion-based hiring violates state contracting requirements, which forbid employment discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex, national origin, disability or ancestry.

So state Rep. Eric Turner, R-Cicero, suggested adding a provision to Senate Bill 367 that would permit religious entities to receive state contracts even if they discriminate in hiring based on religion. The proposal was approved 6-5 Monday by the House Ways and Means Committee.

That decision thrust Indiana, perhaps unwittingly, into a national debate over whether claims of religious liberty can be used to justify acts of discrimination, an increasing popular idea following recent federal court rulings in Kentucky, Texas and elsewhere that struck down anti-gay state constitutional provisions and state laws for violating the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of equality for all.

Most notably, the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature last month approved a measure permitting business owners with strongly held religious beliefs to deny service to gays and lesbians.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, vetoed that legislation Wednesday. She said it was far too broad and a solution in search of a problem, since no Arizona business owner has reported his or her religious liberty under threat.

But similar "religious liberty" measures seeking to authorize discrimination against homosexuals have been filed by state lawmakers in Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri and Oklahoma.

The National Organization for Marriage, which swooped into Indiana last month trying to get the state's pending marriage amendment on the ballot this year, condemned Brewer's veto and said it sees religious liberty protections as the next front in the marriage wars.

"Wherever marriage is redefined, the story is the same: florists, photographers, bakers, caterers, social hall owners — anyone who runs a business that caters to the celebration of nuptials — these individuals are forced to choose between their deeply held beliefs about marriage and the prospect of being forced out of business by onerous lawsuits claiming 'discrimination,'" the group said.

Not said was that those lawsuits only have been filed in states or localities that prohibit discrimination in public accommodations based on sexual orientation. Neither Arizona nor Indiana offers that protection — or permit gay marriage — making the threat of such lawsuits against businesses remote.

Faced with the prospect of Indiana being lumped with Arizona on the religious discrimination issue, Bosma sent Senate Bill 367 back to the Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday. The panel deleted the provision allowing state contractors to discriminate in hiring based on religion.

"It's not a productive discussion right now given what's happening in some other states," Bosma said.

But the idea popped up again Wednesday in the Senate Pensions and Labor Committee.

State Sen. Phil Boots, R-Crawfordsville, the committee chairman, proposed revising House Bill 1242 by redefining "discriminatory practice" in Indiana law to allow preferential hiring based on religious affiliation by a religious corporation, association, educational institution or any other entity.

He said employers should have the right to only hire those people with the same background and core beliefs, and state law should not limit the ability of employers to do so.

Boots withdrew his proposal after failing to win support for his idea, including from other Republicans on the panel. State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, led the opposition.

"I am amazed that this was even vetted here," Tallian said. "These kind of religious-freedom arguments are the back end of religious discrimination."

Even state Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, among the most vocal supporters of Indiana's marriage amendment, refused to get on board with Boots.

"I think people should be hired based on their capacity to do a job, period," Delph said.

As the General Assembly this week begins House-Senate conference committees, when nearly anything can and often is inserted into pending legislation, Bosma said he intends to keep out any proposal authorizing discrimination based on religion.

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