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BY BTL STAFF
INDIANAPOLIS — On Jan. 27, the Indiana Senate Rules and Legislative Procedure Committee advanced Senate Bill 344; the committee voted 7-5 to send the bill to the full Senate after cutting off testimony from a number of LGBT Hoosiers as well as business and faith leaders. However, on Feb. 2, lawmakers in the Indiana General Assembly failed to allow a vote on the measure.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana felt that, “while fundamentally flawed, (the measure) would have opened the door for updating Indiana’s civil rights law to protect Hoosiers based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Jane Henegar, executive director of the ACLU of Indiana, said, “It is extremely disappointing that lawmakers did not allow a vote to occur on the Senate floor today regarding an update to our civil rights law, an update that could have finally put to rest the question of equal protection for LGBT people in Indiana. Lawmakers left this crucial issue unanswered despite our tireless efforts to help fix the deeply flawed legislation, and despite strong support across the state from faith leaders, business leaders and public officials interested in moving Indiana forward.
“As Hoosiers and as Americans, we need to stand against discrimination and resolve this issue that has divided our state and inflicted real and persistent damage. Doing nothing has never been an acceptable option. Hoosiers need full protection from discrimination now. As important members our community, gay and transgender people need to be able to work, live and take care of themselves and their families without fear of discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. We will continue to fight during this legislative session to update our civil rights law and undo the damage done to our state by last year’s RFRA.”
However, some of this response differs from many LGBT organizations who felt SB 344 was wholly discriminatory. Lambda Legal, for example, is calling on Indiana’s LGBT people, allies, business leaders, athletes and advocates to re-engage in the fight against SB 344.
“Senate Bill 344 provides such a broad license to discriminate based on religion that it is nothing short of a Super RFRA,” said Camilla Taylor, Counsel in the Midwest Regional Office of Lambda Legal. “This bill also does not even pretend to protect transgender Hoosiers, excluding them entirely, which is completely unacceptable. The sheep’s clothing barely covers the wolf. Like last spring, we need all hands on deck. As written, SB 344 is designed to hurt LGBT people in Indiana. Anyone who supports this bill doesn’t have the best interests of the LGBT community in mind.”
“Allowing this bill to take even one step forward is an appalling mistake and a betrayal of all Hoosiers,” adds Taylor. “Legalizing discrimination robs Indiana of business and opportunity, and worsens the state’s already muddied reputation. We are just starting to understand the extent of the damage caused by last year’s RFRA, which according to media reports cost the City of Indianapolis an estimated $60 million in lost opportunities. It is clear that Indiana hasn’t bounced back from last year’s fight — far from it. The Governor can claim that Indiana is a welcoming state, but businesses clearly know better because they are choosing to set up shop elsewhere.”
Senate Bill 344 extends very limited civil rights to lesbian and gay people in employment, housing and public accommodations but the bill also includes broad religious exemptions that give businesses and publicly funded social service agencies legal permission to discriminate against LGBT people in Indiana. Furthermore, SB 344 completely excludes any protection for people who are transgender.
“Senate Bill 344 must be amended to ensure all Hoosiers, including transgender Hoosiers, are protected from discrimination. It is completely unacceptable in its current form,” Matt McTighe, executive director of Freedom for All Americans, said. “We will continue working alongside the business community and folks from all walks of life to amend the bill and prove that Indiana is open and welcoming to all.”
“Indiana has a long way to go before it’s truly open and welcoming to all,” McTighe said. “Until everyone is protected from discrimination, including LGBT Hoosiers, the state’s reputation will continue to suffer.”
The Senate Committee rejected an amendment proposed by Democratic Senate minority leader Timothy Lanane that would have eliminated these damaging religious exemptions and would have provided protection from discrimination to transgender people. Among the amendments accepted to SB 344 was an amendment to allow anti-abortion organizations to exclude lesbian and gay people. Another would allow nonprofit organizations, with no affiliation to a church or faith, to discriminate if they offer religious-centered programs, even if they receive state-funding. The last amendment repeals both the RFRA passed last year, and the “fix,” which prevented the RFRA from being used as a defense to discrimination claims, and replaced it with a standard favoring religious defenses to discrimination claims.
“Once again, Indiana lawmakers are trying to pass a bill that unacceptably leaves LGBT Hoosiers at continued risk of discrimination, and now even includes dangerous RFRA-like language attached as an amendment that strips away last year’s so-called ‘fix,'” said HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow. “S.B. 344 is deeply flawed across a number of areas, but most importantly, it would leave transgender Hoosiers behind. With the new amendment attached, it could now also allow anyone to wield religion as a sword of discrimination. We implore the Indiana Legislature to abandon this dangerous legislation, and instead seek to pass fully inclusive non-discrimination protections that would truly safeguard LGBT Hoosiers and visitors from discrimination.”
“Lawmakers still aren’t listening. Tonight, they took a bad bill and made it worse for LGBT people in our state who have to live each day in fear that they could be fired, denied housing or turned away from a public place for who they are,” said Chris Paulsen, Freedom Indiana campaign manager.
“Senate Bill 344 continues to fall far short of ending legal discrimination against LGBT people in our state. As amended, it repeals the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act but replaces it with substandard protections that omit transgender people entirely and provide religious carveouts that undermine the very purpose of the civil rights law. We will continue to work with lawmakers to fix this bill, but we are disappointed that they have not made the substantive changes we know a majority of Hoosiers want to make our state open and welcoming to all people.”
An additional nondiscrimination bill – Senate Bill 100 – was also on the agenda in committee that night. While seeking to update Indiana’s civil rights law, it would override existing municipal civil rights protections, write broad religious exemptions into law, and undermine existing protections for other protected characteristics such as race and religion, among other serious problems.
The morning of Jan. 27, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee did not have any testimony or votes on Senate Bill 66, also known as Super RFRA, which means the bill is dead for the legislative season.
The bill would have made it legal for any business or individual to ignore local laws that are already on the books to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals from discrimination.
McTighe released the following statement regarding the positive hearing: “Senate Bill 66 would have dealt a devastating blow to Indiana’s already damaged reputation. While we are pleased to see this discriminatory bill died a well deserved death, it’s important to remember that LGBT Hoosiers and visitors are still not protected from discrimination throughout most of the state. In fact, with the passage of last year’s religious exemption bill, it is still legal to fire someone, kick them out of their homes or deny them public services based solely on their sexual orientation or gender identity. This is wrong.”
Bills that would provide the protections the LGBT community urgently needs have been introduced, but have so far seen no movement. Lanane has introduced legislation – Senate Bill 2 – that would amend the state’s existing nondiscrimination laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity, among other categories.
Republican Sen. Ron Alting has also introduced similar legislation – Senate Bill 170 – that would update the state’s nondiscrimination laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity. An incredible 70 percent of Hoosiers support passing LGBT nondiscrimination protections.
At least six anti-LGBT bills are under consideration in Indiana this year. One vehemently discriminatory bill attacking transgender Hoosiers – Senate Bill 35 – seeks to criminalize transgender people for using facilities consistent with their gender identity. The anti-LGBT legislation in Indiana is part of an onslaught of bills being pushed in 2016 by anti-equality activists around the country. The HRC is currently tracking nearly 150 anti-LGBT bills in 27 states.
The Associated Press reports that Indiana may have lost as much as $60 million in hotel profits, tax revenue and other economic benefits when a dozen groups decided against hosting conventions in Indianapolis last year due at least in part to the controversy surrounding the state’s religious objections law.
A document prepared by the tourism group Visit Indy shows that the 12 out-of-state groups were surveyed and all said that the state’s controversial law played a role in their decision to hold their events elsewhere.
The findings by Visit Indy are among the first to quantify the law’s financial effect, an impact that social conservatives have skeptically downplayed. Visit Indy also is among several prominent Indiana business voices advocating for statewide protections for anyone fired from a job, denied service or evicted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.