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Indiana GOP rejects efforts to shield local civil rights laws in religious freedom bill

Indiana GOP rejects efforts to shield local civil rights laws in religious freedom bill
Indiana state capitol in Indianapolis.
Indiana state capitol in Indianapolis.

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana House Republicans on Thursday deflected Democrats’ attempts to shield local civil rights ordinances and church and home day care regulations from a proposal that supporters say could allow people to cite strong religious beliefs to deny services for activities such as same-sex weddings.

The debate occurred as about 100 opponents and supporters of the bill filled the House gallery and dozens held signs in the hallway outside the chamber over the measure that critics say could provide legal cover for discrimination against gays and transgender people.

Democrats proposed amendments they said were aimed at ensuring the measure couldn’t be used to overturn local civil rights protections that go further than state law to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination or challenge day care rules that the Legislature approved last year after several years of opposition from conservative groups.

The proposals were defeated in largely party-line votes, with just three of the 71 House Republicans supporting any of the amendments. The House could vote next week on approving the bill, which cleared the Senate in a 40-10 party-line vote last month.

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Democratic Rep. Gail Riecken, of Evansville, argued the Legislature needed to be clear that religious objections weren’t sufficient to challenge requirements for day care providers receiving taxpayer money to meet safety and nutritional standards and limits on the number of children they can oversee at one time.

“This bill will only complicate, confuse and provide conflicts for the very basis that we have held for the protection of our children,” she said.

The bill 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.

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Supporters say the proposal is aimed at protecting religious freedom and preventing the government from compelling people to be involved in same-sex weddings or other activities they find objectionable.

House Majority Leader Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, said the bill would give courts guidance on how to decide cases involving competing constitutional rights pertaining to religious freedom and discrimination.

“It is important to allow courts to continue to have the ability to determine these things on a case-by-case basis,” McMillin said.

Another rejected amendment was offered by Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, and would have required business owners who refuse to serve a class of people for religious reasons to post a sign notifying customers.

Sponsors of the bill say it is closely modeled on a federal religious freedom law passed in 1993 and that 19 other states already have similar laws.

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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.

Rep. Teri Austin, D-Anderson, said she believed changes were needed to the bill so that the intent of the Legislature on issues such as day care regulations was clear and not subject to misinterpretation.

“Whether it is a judge, a lay person or generations to come,” she said.

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