INDIANAPOLIS — More than a dozen Indiana communities have adopted ordinances to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity following an uproar over a religious objections law that critics charged was anti-gay.
Experts say the patchwork of protections reflects uncertainty over what cities can do, since state law doesn’t include such protections. But they say the local measures could serve as a testing ground for proposals for state-level protections and help advance the issue in next year’s legislative session.
“Nobody’s really sure how these are supposed to work, with the tension between the right to be free from discrimination and the religious sensibilities of store owners,” Indiana University law professor Robert Katz told The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/1J8UMHi ). “And so it creates sort of a laboratory of different cities and counties trying to calibrate that balance.”
Indiana’s religious objections law establishes legal guidelines for courts dealing with cases involving religious objections. But critics charged that in its original form, the law would allow people to use their religious beliefs as a legal defense for discriminating against members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.
Lawmakers clarified the language, stating the law couldn’t be used to trump nondiscrimination ordinances. But only a handful of communities have such protections.
Supporters of the original religious objections law accused lawmakers and Gov. Mike Pence of capitulating to gay-rights advocates.
“When you put somebody’s sexual behavior and sexual choices on the same level as someone’s skin color, I think you’re making a huge jump,” said Ron Johnson, executive director of the Indiana Pastors Alliance.
But others called for protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity to be added to state law.
Article continues below“The fact of the matter is — I find this problematic — if you’re not in a city that has an anti-discrimination rule for sexual orientation, the business is not required to avoid that discrimination,” noted IU law professor Daniel Conkle, who supported the religious objections law.
Leaders in communities that have adopted local protections say they’re needed to send an important message that people are welcome in Indiana.
“If they don’t feel welcome, they’re going to look for a place where they do feel welcome,” Muncie Mayor Dennis Tyler said.
“Given the national climate and outcry against this law that the state passed, we wanted to make it perfectly clear that the city of Hammond, Indiana, has no intention of discriminating in any way,” added Hammond City Council member Janet Venecz.
The local protections are just one step toward rolling out the welcome mat. Indiana has hired a New York public relations firm to help repair its image after the religious objections fallout.
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