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INDIANAPOLIS | The Statehouse was alive Tuesday with mid-session fervor as supporters and opponents of a proposal to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity held competing rallies at opposite ends of the 127-year-old building.

In the middle, the 100 state representatives and 50 senators attended to the ceremonial Organization Day traditions for the 2016 legislative session, so lawmakers can get right to work when the 10-week regular meeting of the General Assembly convenes Jan. 5.

Leaders of the Republican-controlled House and Senate admitted the civil rights debate is likely to be the most significant issue they tackle in the upcoming session, even as they pledged also to focus on road funding, education issues and preventing drug abuse.

"I think we may have the most difficult legislative job that I've seen in the 29 years that I've served in this chamber," said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis. "It's the balancing of two deeply held and sincere beliefs by Hoosiers."

He explained that Hoosiers don't abide discrimination, but also strongly support religious liberty. The challenge is figuring how to respect and preserve each of those interests, he said.

In the Statehouse's north atrium, the answer was "four words a comma."

That is, adding "sexual orientation, gender identity" to Indiana's existing civil rights statutes barring discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on race, religion, color, sex, disability, national origin or ancestry.

"That's the easiest way to do it. There's no need to make it more difficult than that," said Chris Paulsen, campaign manager for Freedom Indiana, a coalition of business and community groups supporting civil rights expansion.

In the south atrium, Pastor Ron Johnson Jr., of Crown Point's Living Stones Church, begged to differ.

He led a rally of several hundred Hoosiers wearing green shirts reading, "Stand for religious liberty," and declared Christians are the real victims of discrimination.

Johnson said extending civil rights protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity would deny religious business owners the ability to express their beliefs through work, and could force them to support practices such as gay marriage, which they oppose.

"I believe our state is in a very perilous spot," Johnson said. "We're on the precipice of seeing our religious liberties eroded."

Back in the House chamber, even as Bosma was imploring lawmakers to be respectful of all opinions and to consider potential compromises, state Rep. Bruce Borders, R-Jasonville, was giving Republican members individual copies of "Outlasting the Gay Revolution."

The new book, which proclaims on its back cover, "It's time to push back, America," urges conservatives never to compromise and instead keep fighting until "gay activists" overplay their hand and America embraces religious values.

Balancing act may dominate legislative session

In fact, it was Republican Gov. Mike Pence's March 26 enactment of Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was widely seen as licensing discrimination against homosexuals, that awakened many Hoosiers to the fact that gays in Indiana can be fired from a job or evicted from their homes for being gay.

An Oct. 19-21 telephone poll of likely Indiana voters found 52 percent of Hoosiers believe LGBT residents face discrimination in the state, and 55 percent support an LGBT civil rights law.

Just 33 percent of Hoosiers oppose such a law, according to the Bellwether Research survey, which has a margin of error of plus- or minus-4 percent.

In the Senate, state Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, released a draft of his proposed civil rights legislation aimed at balancing anti-discrimination with religious liberty.

Senate Bill 100, which Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, has promised will receive a committee hearing, adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's civil rights law — but also includes a five-page list of exemptions for organizations claiming a religious affiliation.

In particular, religious entities would be permitted to receive government contracts even if they discriminate in hiring based on religion, or require their employees to follow a lifestyle dictated by claimed religious beliefs.

Local civil rights ordinances also would be superseded by the state law, business and other entities could restrict bathroom use based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and any person making a false discrimination claim could be fined up to $1,000.

Freedom Indiana spokeswoman Jennifer Wagner said the organization is pleased the Senate appears to understand the importance of updating the state's civil rights laws.

"We look forward to working with leadership in both chambers to end legal discrimination against gay and transgender people in our state," Wagner said.

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