State lawmakers debate if bills discriminate or enhance religious freedom

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Feb. 5, 2015) - Florists, banquet halls, wedding planners being able to deny service to gay couples; that is the aim for one of many bills geared toward enhancing religious freedom, that are taking center stage at the Statehouse.

The bills have ignited a debate among Indiana lawmakers over what is religious freedom and what is discrimination.

Being able to say Merry Christmas in a public school classroom and a Christian University denying employment to an atheist are all possible scenarios in bills being heard during the 2015 session. They’ve managed to spark outrage among some state lawmakers.

“The focus of the bill is to answer this question, can religious organizations contract with the state to provide services to the citizens of the state?” said Dr. David Wright, the President of Indiana Wesleyan University.

Tuesday was the first win for the President of the Christian Indiana Wesleyan University, Dr. David Wright.

“We would be happy to see it pass because it safeguards something we have done to the good of the state and the citizens of the state for many, many years,” he said.

He’s talking about an Indiana bill that passed out of the state senate this week that would allow his school to accept state funds, while allowing the university to discriminate in their hiring; only Christians, willing to abide by the school’s beliefs.

“We’re required by the academy and our crediting agencies to notify people well in advance of what the standards are at our university so that they know from the beginning what they’re going to encounter when they come to our university,” said Wright.

But Wesleyan’s bill is one of many in the Statehouse that’s looking like it’s in the 2015 spiritual session. Three major bills this year are all geared at enhancing religious freedoms.

The first has been dubbed, “The Merry Christmas bill.” It would allow schools to spread secular seasonal cheer, with nativities, Christmas trees, crosses, all allowed on public property.  It passed out of the senate education committee.

Another is Wesleyan’s religious exemptions bill. It aims to allow private businesses that receive public funds, to discriminate in their hiring.

Perhaps the most controversial of them all though is the religious freedom restoration act. It would allow for religious businesses to deny service to gay couples, or atheists.

“It’s called religious freedom, but when you really take a look at these bills, my concern is that it allows for discrimination,” said Senate Minority Leader, Tim Lanane (D – Anderson).

Indiana democrats are facing an uphill struggle attempting to block the religious reforms.

“Discrimination in any form seems to me as wrong, and I think for the state to sanction it in any way as a public policy is dangerous,” said Lanane.

The freedom of restoration act is being voted on Monday in the senate judiciary committee.

Supporters argue these bills are not a free pass for discrimination; rather, they enhance Hoosiers’ first amendment rights.