INDIANAPOLIS — As the Republican-controlled General Assembly prepares to debate gay rights for the third year in a row, two recent statewide public opinion polls find a majority of Indiana residents support extending civil rights protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers.
The surveys, separately conducted by Bellwether Research for the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and Princeton Survey Research Associates International for Ball State University and Gannett Co., both show Hoosiers oppose LGBT discrimination perhaps more vigorously than their elected representatives.
In the Bellwether poll, 62 percent of respondents said they strongly or somewhat support making it illegal to generally discriminate against LGBT citizens.
Just 34 percent oppose adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the seven protected classes in Indiana's existing civil rights laws.
Support for a state ban on LGBT discrimination was strongest among Democrats (82 percent) and political independents (64 percent); 46 percent of Republicans said they favor such a law.
The survey also found 80 percent of Republicans already believe it is illegal under Indiana law to discriminate against gays and lesbians.
When asked about supporting a law providing LGBT Hoosiers specific protections against discrimination in housing and employment, business services and government services, nearly seven in 10 said they favor it, according to the Princeton survey.
Princeton also found 54 percent of respondents believe it is more important to prevent discrimination against LGBT Hoosiers than to accommodate business owners claiming a religious objection to serving them.
That issue of civil rights versus religious freedom is expected to dominate the 10-week legislative session that begins Jan. 5.
State Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, already has proposed legislation, Senate Bill 100, adding civil rights protections for LGBT Hoosiers, but with myriad exceptions for various religious objections.
The measure also supersedes local ordinances that may provide additional civil rights protections and remedies.
Both supporters and opponents of extending civil rights to LGBT Hoosiers have condemned Holdman's proposal.
State Rep. Curt Nisly, R-Goshen, said Senate Bill 100 threatens to use the force of the state to override individual conscience.
"I do not believe that individuals should blindly accept control of their freedom because of the whims of the state," Nisly said.
"Those who advocate for LGBT lifestyles have every right to their beliefs. But they do not have the right to force those beliefs on Hoosiers who hold differing personal views."
Chris Paulsen, campaign manager for Freedom Indiana, a coalition of business and community groups fighting for LGBT protections, said Holdman's legislation falls short because it treats LGBT discrimination different from discrimination based on race, age or sex.
"If this legislation passes in its current form, it would set the clock back decades in Indiana," Paulsen said.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Republican Gov. Mike Pence both have tried threading a nonspecific middle course by arguing that Hoosiers don't believe in discrimination, but also value religious liberty.
However, when Bosma recently was asked why not simply add "sexual orientation, gender identity" to the state's civil rights law and not worry about the religious implications because the law never will be used since he claims Hoosiers don't discriminate, he insisted it's not that simple.
"The question is how does that impact those in our communities that disagree with the Supreme Court ruling on marriage. That's what most of this funnels down to," Bosma said. "And that's a delicate balance. It's a very divisive issue, still, for Hoosiers."
The Bellwether poll found lawmakers who vote against LGBT civil rights protections are risking their seats.
Nearly 50 percent said they would be less likely to vote for a legislator who opposes an anti-discrimination law, with just 22 percent saying that would help earn their vote. Another 27 percent said it would not affect their vote either way.
The debate over gay rights in Indiana has shifted dramatically this decade.
As recently as 2014, the Legislature was considering approving a state constitutional amendment, previously approved in 2011, banning gay marriage and civil unions in the state. Gay marriage already was illegal by state statute.
Earlier this year, ahead of the June 26 U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, Hoosier lawmakers enacted a Religious Freedom Restoration Act widely seen as licensing LGBT discrimination under the guise of protecting religious liberty.
The law quickly was modified after numerous companies threatened to pull their business from Indiana, though lawmakers declined to adopt civil rights protections in the immediate aftermath of that debacle.