Indiana Wesleyan measure stirs religion debate

A measure designed to restore Indiana Wesleyan University's workforce training contract with the state unexpectedly raised debate about religious discrimination Monday in the General Assembly.

Republican State Rep. Eric Turner proposed amending Indiana's civil rights law to allow religious institutions doing business with the state to employ people based in part on their religious affiliation.

Turner filed the measure shortly after the state rejected a longstanding workforce training contract with Wesleyan. A lawyer with the attorney general's office determined language in the contract allowing the Christian university to hire in part based on religion violated state law.

The measure appeared headed for a full debate in the House on Monday afternoon, but House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, quickly pulled it from consideration, not long after outrage over the issue erupted on Twitter.

"There were concerns that it had complications beyond the Indiana Wesleyan contracting," Bosma said.

Neil Rush, Indiana Wesleyan's director of risk management, said the proposal would put the state in line with federal contracting guidelines, which allow for faith-based organizations to win federal contracts.

"It's just like a church. If you don't have a right to hire with a faith commensurate to (yours), sooner or later it's not going to look like much of a church," Rush said. "We're trying to maintain the same thing with our Christian university."

Rush said the university has been contracting with the state since 2006 to provide education and retraining for workers who lose their jobs when companies move operations overseas. But he said the university only recently ran into problems when a lawyer with the attorney general's office raised concerns about the university's ability to exclude employees based on religion.

Ken Falk, chief legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, said Turner's proposal raises obvious concerns about whether the government is supporting religious discrimination.

"The question is, what does it mean to amend Indiana law to, in essence, allow discrimination on the grounds of religion?" Falk said. "Whereas that might make sense if you're talking about someone who has religious duties or even tangential religious duties, if, in fact, this law goes even further than that you have to wonder, why are we narrowing people's rights?"

The measure will be considered again when the House Ways and Means Committee meets Tuesday morning. House Republican spokesman Nicholas Goodwin said Turner would address the proposal then.

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