Indiana Dems, GOP promise debate over civil rights for LGBT Hoosiers

Inside the Indiana Statehouse. Republican legislative leaders are rejecting the idea that Indiana can resolve its debate over civil rights protections by simply adding "sexual orientation, gender identity" to the state's existing anti-discrimination statutes.

INDIANAPOLIS | Republican legislative leaders are rejecting the idea that Indiana can resolve its debate over civil rights protections by simply adding "sexual orientation, gender identity" to the state's existing anti-discrimination statutes.

Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, and House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, insisted Monday that any civil rights proposal heard by the General Assembly next year must include strong protections for "religious freedom."

When pressed by reporters following an Indiana Chamber of Commerce luncheon, neither Long nor Bosma would define his understanding of religious liberty, or how it might specifically apply to limit civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers.

However, Long said freedom of religion is as important as the constitutional protections afforded free speech, the free press and the right to assemble, and must be given due deference in any civil rights debate.

"It's not just 'four words and a comma,' and anyone who says that is short-changing the discussion here," Long said. "We're trying to do our best to get a balanced piece of legislation."

Long confirmed there will be at least a Senate committee hearing on a civil rights proposal sponsored by state Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle.

He said he will not discuss what the measure contains until the plan is presented privately to Senate Republicans in coming days.

Holdman last session won Senate approval for Senate Bill 127, permitting entities receiving government contracts to discriminate in hiring based on religious beliefs and practices.

The House never took up Holdman's proposal after lawmakers passed Senate Enrolled Act 101, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, widely seen as licensing discrimination against LGBT Hoosiers. That law ultimately was modified by Senate Enrolled Act 50 to bar LGBT discrimination under the guise of religious liberty.

The national attention on Indiana due to RFRA awakened many Hoosiers to the fact that nothing prevents a business from firing a gay employee, or a landlord from evicting a gay tenant, just for being gay.

Public opinion polls show a majority of Hoosiers support a law prohibiting LGBT discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation.

Bosma said finding a balance between religious freedom and civil rights "is clearly the toughest issue of the session and may be the toughest issue in many of our careers."

"I think we can find a spot that recognizes the importance of not discriminating against any category of Hoosier, and still recognizing the freedom of conscience that our state constitution has specific guarantees of," Bosma said.

"That will be a big challenge to accomplish."

He declared House Republicans will not be "bullied, badgered or blackmailed" into adopting a measure they do not fully support, even if traditional GOP allies in the business community, including the Chamber of Commerce, are backing LGBT protections.

Bosma also would not promise the House will hold a hearing on any Senate-approved civil rights legislation during the 10-week regular session that starts Jan. 5.

"We don't even know what's going to be sent over. In fact, we didn't even hear exactly what's going to be in it today," Bosma said.

"So it will all depend on the content, and as I've said, my goal is for policymakers to have a thorough discussion of it and to come to a reasonable conclusion."

Republican Gov. Mike Pence has yet to weigh in on whether Indiana needs an LGBT civil rights law. He claims to still be studying the issue.

Support for the governor, who is running for re-election in 2016, dropped significantly following the RFRA debacle and has yet to recover, despite Pence's touting Indiana's strong economy at town hall meetings across the state.

House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said when it comes to passing an anti-discrimination law, Hoosiers don't need more study or what appears to be a complicated Senate Republican proposal.

He said they just want lawmakers to do the right thing and get it over with.

"We need to pass full civil rights protections that include everybody, based on sexual orientation and gender identity," Pelath said.

"It's simple, it's passable and most of all, it will put this issue behind Indiana."

The Republican-controlled General Assembly convenes its 2016 session Tuesday with the ceremonial Organization Day meeting starting at noon region time.

Supporters and opponents of LGBT civil rights are expected to pack the Statehouse to advocate their positions as lawmakers take their seats in the House and Senate chambers.