Indiana Senate panel advances religious freedom bill to allow anti-gay discrimination

Indiana state capitol in Indianapolis.

Indiana state capitol in Indianapolis.

INDIANAPOLIS — Republicans on an Indiana Senate committee didn’t wait for the Democratic members to arrive Wednesday before pushing through a contentious proposal critics say would allow people and businesses could refuse services for same-sex weddings because of religious beliefs.

Indiana state capitol in Indianapolis.

Indiana state capitol in Indianapolis.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s seven Republicans all voted in favor of the bill soon after the 8:30 a.m. meeting time without the three Democratic members present. Committee Chairman Brent Steele, R-Bedford, said he had announced to senators Tuesday that the panel had numerous bills to consider and needed to start on time.

“I would’ve started business with any quorum I got, whether it was Republican or Democrat or cows or horses,” Steele told The Associated Press after Wednesday’s meeting.

Democratic Sen. John Broden of South Bend said he would have voted against the bill but ran about 15 minutes late for the meeting. He said he didn’t believe any rules were broken by the committee’s action.

The Judiciary Committee heard about four hours of testimony on the bill last week, the same day that a couple hundred supporters attended a Statehouse rally where Republican Gov. Mike Pence was among the speakers.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce and some business executives argued that the proposal could hurt the state’s reputation and make it more difficult to attract companies.

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Broden said he didn’t believe religious liberties were actually threatened in Indiana and that he worried the proposal could conflict with civil rights ordinances in such cities as Indianapolis, South Bend and Bloomington that go beyond state law to include LGBT citizens.

The bill under consideration would prohibit any state laws that “substantially burden” a person’s ability to follow his or her religious beliefs and has definition of a “person” that includes religious institutions, corporations, partnerships and associations.

The full state Senate could vote next week on approving the proposal, which supporters say is modeled after a federal religious freedom bill that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994.

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