Ind. Senate poised to take up LGBT rights bills

Posted at 10:09 AM, Jan 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-27 10:09:17-05

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- The split over LGBT rights between social conservatives and the business wing of the Republican Party will likely be on full display Wednesday, when a GOP-controlled committee in the Indiana Senate takes up measures that could establish statewide protections based on sexual orientation and possibly gender identity.

The measures come in response to the bitter debate last March over a religious objections law that drew swift and largely negative attention to the state after critics contended that it would sanction discrimination against gay people on religious grounds. GOP lawmakers and Republican Gov. Mike Pence, who supported the law, hastily made changes to tamp down the uproar.

Since then, however, the state's business establishment has pushed lawmakers to adopt civil rights for all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. That would include protections for anyone fired from a job, denied service or evicted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

"We need to create an environment that is welcoming and inclusive if we want other people to come here, whether that's top talent we want to recruit and retain, or conventions," said Jon Mills, a spokesman for diesel equipment manufacturer Cummins Inc.

The proposals are opposed by religious conservatives who argue such laws could compel Christian businesses owners to work with gay people despite their religious objections. The oft-cited example is a photographer, baker or wedding planner working for a same-sex couple.

"This really comes down to a battle of big business and big money against small businesses and religious liberty," said Indiana Pastor Kevin Baird, who advocates for religious conservative causes.

One bill the Senate is expected to take up would create statewide LGBT protections, while offering exemptions for clergy, small businesses and religious organizations. It would also pre-empt cities such as Indianapolis that have adopted municipal ordinances providing more robust protections. The other would allow cities to keep their laws, but would exclude transgender people.

Passage is far from certain, though. The governor has said he will prioritize religious freedom over LGBT rights, and not everyone is certain that the state's economy was harmed by the religious objections law.

A survey by the tourism booster group Visit Indy - which backs LGBT rights - suggests the law may have cost Indianapolis more than $60 million in convention revenues. That's against $4.4 billion a year in economic impact such gatherings have yielded in recent years. One evangelical leader said that's a minimal effect and Indianapolis might not have gotten the conventions in any case.