News (USA)

Foes step up action on Indiana bill that would allow anti-LGBT discrimination

Foes step up action on Indiana bill that would allow anti-LGBT discrimination
Indiana state Rep. Timothy Wesco (R-Osceola), addresses a rally of supporters of a religious freedom bill at the Statehouse in Indianapolis on February 9, 2015.
Indiana state Rep. Timothy Wesco (R-Osceola), addresses a rally of supporters of a religious freedom bill at the Statehouse in Indianapolis on February 9, 2015. Michael Conroy, AP

INDIANAPOLIS — The coalition that led last year’s campaign against adding a same-sex marriage ban to Indiana’s constitution is now trying to build public opposition to a proposal that supporters say would allow those with religious objections to refuse services for same-sex weddings.

Freedom Indiana organizers argue the bill could override civil rights ordinances in several cities that go beyond state law to include discrimination protections for LGBT people. The group is planning a Statehouse rally ahead of an Indiana House committee hearing on the bill Monday morning.

The Republican-backed proposal cleared the state Senate in a 40-10 vote last month and is among similar measures introduced in at least a dozen states that critics say could provide legal cover for discrimination against gays and transgender people.

Bill sponsor Rep. Tim Wesco, R-Osceola, said the proposal is aimed at protecting religious activities from government intrusion.

“It doesn’t mean you can do anything in the name of religion,” Wesco said. “It just means the government can’t burden your religious exercise for any reason, it has to have a good reason.”

Some businesses, such as Columbus-based Cummins Inc., have argued that the proposal could hurt the state’s reputation and make it more difficult to attract companies.

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 a definition of a “person” that includes religious institutions, corporations, partnerships and associations.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, similar bills have been introduced this year in more than a dozen states as conservatives brace for a possible U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. Gay marriage opponents in Indiana were angered last year when the Legislature failed to advance a proposed state constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. Federal courts later legalized same-sex marriage in the state.

Freedom Indiana spokeswoman Jennifer Wagner said the proposal’s approval could lead to legal challenges against civil rights ordinances covering gays in such cities as Indianapolis, South Bend, Evansville and Bloomington.

“Now they potentially are going to lose the ability to market their cities as inclusive and open if someone decides to file that lawsuit,” Wagner said.

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The Indiana Chamber of Commerce has opposed the bill, saying it could expose businesses to lawsuits from employees claiming violations of religious liberties.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma, who supports the legislation, said changes were being considered to specify that it didn’t cover businesses.

State chamber President Kevin Brinegar said the bill would cause “concern and confusion” among businesses without such a change.

Opponents of the bill face a challenge as Republicans who control the Legislature seem solidly behind it – and GOP Gov. Mike Pence was among the speakers at a Statehouse rally last month attended by a couple hundred bill supporters.

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Wagner said Freedom Indiana backers have sent several thousand phone and email messages to lawmakers asking them to oppose the proposal.

“We don’t need this and all it is going to do is create a whole bunch of headaches for a whole bunch of people,” she said.

Bill supporters say others states with similar laws haven’t seen the flood of lawsuits opponents suggest will come.

“It can only hurt our state if the language of the bill is misconstrued as something that it is not – such as a license to discriminate,” said Wesco, the House bill sponsor. “Nineteen other states have this legislation. None of them, including Illinois, would we look at this and say this makes them unfriendly and unwelcoming.”

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