States plan renewed debate on LGBT rights, religious freedom

In this March 28, 2015, file photo, opponents of an Indiana religious objections law rally outside the State House in Indianapolis.

In this March 28, 2015, file photo, opponents of an Indiana religious objections law rally outside the State House in Indianapolis. Doug McSchooler, AP

With same-sex marriage now legal nationwide, lawmakers in numerous states are preparing for a new round of battles in 2016 over whether to grant discrimination protections to LGBT people or religious exemptions to nonprofits and businesses that object to gay marriage.

The tussle over civil rights and religious freedoms is one of several hot-button issues that could drive states in opposite policy directions, as lawmakers seek to appeal to voters during a year in which more than 5,800 state legislative seats will be up for election.

Republicans hold majorities in two-thirds of the states’ legislative chambers, meaning they get to set the agenda. Those priorities could include attempts to exempt businesses from providing wedding-related services to gay couples, expand gun rights and further restrictions on abortions.

Democrats, meanwhile, will likely be pushing in the opposite direction.

“What we’ve got is division,” said William Pound, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

He predicts there will be a “significant number of bills” seeking to advance either religious rights or the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

“You’ve got the Democratic states reacting very differently, a lot of the time, than the Republican states to these issues,” Pound said.

Influential national groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Family Research Council are preparing for a new round of legislative debates after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that states must allow same-sex marriage. Their focus now is on the effect of that ruling.

There are 22 states with laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and 21 with laws limiting the government’s ability to burden the free exercise of religion. But just four states — Connecticut, Rhode Island, Illinois and New Mexico — have both.

The ACLU will be seeking to expand the list of places barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s targeting at least a half dozen states — Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania — that have Republican-led legislatures and also may be pivotal in presidential elections.

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