INDIANAPOLIS (Jan. 31, 2016) - After hours of debate, a panel of state lawmakers voted last week to advance a hotly debated proposal dealing with gay rights and religious freedom, a measure that could be voted on in the full Senate in the coming days.
The Senate Committee on Rules and Legislative Procedure heard two bills Wednesday dealing with LGBT rights, proposals which also include a number of exemptions involving religious freedom.
The committee discussed Senate Bill 100 which would have expanded protections to the LGBT community, and Senate Bill 344, which expands protections based on sexual orientation but not gender identity, sending that issue to a study committee.
While no vote was taken on SB100, the committee did advance SB344 to the full Senate by a vote of 7-5.
It's a debate that's been closely watched with numerous civic leaders and organizations weighing in - lawmakers, pastors, and business leaders - all with very different views.
Lawmakers heard more than four hours of testimony after making a series of complicated changes to SB344, including some changes which could essentially repeal last year's controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The bill does not provide any protections for the transgender community, but lawmakers say it's still a big step for Indiana.
“I do feel that SB 344 is a major step forward a major proposal for change in Indiana. It provides strong religious freedom protections; it does propose and provide civil rights protections for the LGB community. And considering where we were a couple of years ago that’s a big step for Indiana,” said Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne.
The bill now moves to the full Senate, where it will likely be heard next week ahead of some key deadlines looming on the Senate calendar. Next Tuesday (Feb. 2) is the last day changes can be made to the bill on the Senate floor and next Wednesday (Feb. 3) is the final day the Senate can vote to approve the bill and send it the House or reject it outright.
Peter Hanscom, the director of Indiana Competes, a business group fighting for LGBT protections issued the following statement about Wednesday's committee vote:
“The legislature had a chance to strengthen Indiana tonight and make our state more competitive, but this opportunity was not seized. We want to believe the General Assembly is sincere in their efforts to pass meaningful legislation to eliminate discrimination, but tonight’s hearing showed Indiana missing another opportunity.
“The Hoosier business community has said from the beginning that Indiana must be a place that welcomes all, not most. We respect the legislative process and will continue to work with the General Assembly, but we will not support a final bill that does not provide for equal rights for the entire LGBT community.
“Business owners, faith leaders and anti-discrimination supporters have shared the message tonight that Senate Bill 344 is still woefully inadequate because it leaves out the transgender community and provides numerous allowances for additional discrimination. That is not the answer.”
The bill's author, State Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, also issued a statement Wednesday.
“This legislation represents a good-faith effort to balance religious liberty and civil rights protections for gay and lesbian Hoosiers,” Holdman said. “We all know this is a contentious issue, but I believe it’s one the General Assembly must address and I look forward to continuing the discussion in the days ahead.”
Senate officials also issued a news release, detailing some of the key provisions of SB 344 as passed by the committee. According to the bill's author, the legislation:
- Adds sexual orientation, active duty military status and veteran status as protected classes in Indiana’s civil rights laws for employment, housing, and public accommodations.
- Calls for a legislative study committee to examine the topic of discrimination based on gender identity.
- Provides exemptions to the sexual orientation provisions for clergy, religious organizations, and small businesses of five or fewer employees engaged in marriage-related activities (same as current employer exemption in Indiana civil rights law).
- Replaces Indiana’s RFRA law by codifying the existing “material burden” standard of judicial review established by the Indiana Supreme Court for claims involving Hoosiers’ state constitutional rights to freedom of speech, thought, conscience, religion, the press, and assembly. This would return Indiana to the same legal standard for these core constitutional rights that existed before RFRA was enacted last year.
- Prohibits government entities from taking discriminatory action against clergy or religious organizations based on actions taken in accordance with their religious beliefs regarding marriage.
- Mirrors federal law in allowing religious-affiliated state contractors to limit their hiring to people who follow the organization’s teachings.
- Prohibits government entities from denying any license, including a marriage license, to a person based on their lawful activities related to marriage or sexual orientation.
- Maintains all local civil rights ordinances as they existed on Dec. 31, 2015. Prohibits new local ordinances from differing with state law regarding what classes are covered and what penalties can be levied.