The Indiana House approved by a wide margin Monday a proposal strengthening protections for religious objections in state law that opponents say could provide legal cover for discrimination against gay people.
Republicans cast all the "yes" votes as House members voted 63-31 to support the bill that would prohibit any state laws that "substantially burden" a person's ability to follow his or her religious beliefs and has a definition of a "person" that includes religious institutions, businesses and associations.
Groups supporting the measure say it would prevent the government from compelling people to provide services such as catering or photography for same-sex weddings or other activities they find objectionable for religious reasons.
House Majority Leader Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, said the bill would give courts guidance on how to decide cases involving competing constitutional rights pertaining to religious freedom and discrimination.
"No one in this General Assembly is advocating a bill that would allow people to discriminate," he said. "Everybody wants the opportunity for people to practice the rights they're supposed to have in this country."
National gay-rights consider the Indiana bill among the most sweeping of several similar proposals introduced this year in more than a dozen states as conservatives brace for a possible U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.
"What these politicians are peddling as 'religious liberty' is not real religious liberty," said Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund. "This law is an outright recipe for discrimination and persecution."
Five Republican House members joined Democrats in voting against the proposal. The Senate approved a similar version last month in a 40-10 party-line vote. Once agreement on a version is reached, the bill would go to Gov. Mike Pence, who supports the proposal.
“The legislation, SB 101, is about respecting and reassuring Hoosiers that their religious freedoms are intact," Pence said in a written statement. "I strongly support the legislation and applaud the members of the General Assembly for their work on this important issue. I look forward to signing the bill when it reaches my desk.”
Scott Spychala, an Air Force veteran from Indianapolis, wore a sticker opposing the bill on his military fatigues as he sat in the House gallery for the debate.
"I just think there's going to be opportunities down the road where people can use their religion to discriminate," he said after the vote. "It's taking us back in history."
Sponsors of the bill say it is closely modeled on a federal religious freedom law passed in 1993 and that 19 other states already have similar laws.
Gay marriage opponents in Indiana were angered last year when the Legislature failed to advance a proposed state constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. Federal courts later legalized same-sex marriage in the state.
Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said the proposal wasn't needed to protect religious liberties in that state and was nothing but a "consolation prize" for those against legalizing gay marriages.
Other Democrats said the bill could be used to challenge local civil rights ordinances that go further than state law to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination or challenge state regulations on church day cares.
"We're going to cost our state a lot of money," said Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond. "We are meddling with the lives of people that we have no business meddling with."
Rallies in support of and against the bill have drawn hundreds of people to the Statehouse in recent weeks, and Christian and Jewish clergy members have testified on each side.
About a dozen people against the bill were on hand Monday as members of Freedom Indiana, which campaigned against the state gay marriage ban last year, delivered what it said were nearly 10,000 petitions opposing the measure to the office of House Speaker Brian Bosma.
Rep. Bruce Borders, R-Jasonville, said he believed the bill would protect people trying to live out their religious faith beyond church.
"I can see very easily where someone with their business is asked to do something that according what they've read in God's word they simply cannot do it in good conscience," Borders said.