Lawmakers suggest deal close on religious freedom law

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Indiana's Republican legislative leaders moved toward a possible agreement Wednesday on how to clarify the state's new Religious Freedom Restoration Act law in hopes of quashing concerns that it could allow discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Those leaders huddled behind closed doors for several hours with Gov. Mike Pence, fellow Republican lawmakers and business executives as they worked on language they hope to have ready for possible votes Thursday.

House Speaker Brian Bosma emerged Wednesday night from a private meeting of House Republicans and said they were "very closely united" on a proposal but that he still needed to talk with Senate leaders and others.

Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long met at least twice Wednesday with Pence, who requested the changes Tuesday after signing the measure last week and enduring days of sharp criticism from around the country.

Bosma said he didn't know about the governor's support, but said he was hopeful of support from business executives who've joined in decrying the law.

"I believe we're going to be on the same page," Bosma said.

Long said late Wednesday afternoon that the leaders were "very hopeful."

"But we're not there yet, so we're going to keep plugging away," he said.

Among those who met Wednesday with Bosma and Long was Mark Miles, the CEO of Hulman & Co., which owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Miles declined to comment about the talks as he left Bosma's office Wednesday afternoon.

The law prohibits any laws that "substantially burden" a person's ability to follow his or her religious beliefs. The definition of "person" includes religious institutions, businesses and associations.

Pence called Tuesday for legislation that clarified the law's intent before this weekend's NCAA basketball Final Four. He made no public comments Wednesday.

Meanwhile, fallout over the law continued to mount. On Wednesday, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) became the second group to announce it would take its convention elsewhere; the AFSCME public employees' union said Tuesday it was canceling an October conference in Indianapolis. Businesses and organizations — including Apple and the NCAA — have voiced concern over Indiana's law, and some college sports figures are boycotting the Final Four.

Former Gov. Joe Kernan, a Democrat, called on lawmakers to rewrite the law, saying the storm of criticism "becomes more and more damaging every hour, every day" and that Indiana residents are being "made out to be Neanderthals who are stepping back in time."

A complete rewrite of the law is not on the table, and Bosma and Long said they want the clarification to address what they say is incorrect criticism of the law.

"The question is removing the specter that's been raised of discrimination and denial of service, facilities, some other things," Bosma said. "That's what we're focusing on."

The Indianapolis Star and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, which obtained a draft of the proposed language Wednesday, reported that it would specify that the law can't be used as a legal defense for refusing to provide services, goods, facilities or accommodations. The Journal Gazette said the language bars discrimination based on "race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or United States military service."

Democratic legislative leaders have said such a step would be insufficient for a law that's become a national embarrassment. And the draft of proposed changes does not protect gays and lesbians under the state's civil rights laws or repeal the law.

Although the legal language does not specifically mention gays and lesbians, critics say the law is designed to shield businesses and individuals who do not want to serve gays and lesbians, such as florists or caterers who might be hired for a same-sex wedding.

They noted that a photograph from Pence's private bill signing last week included leaders of groups that have fought gay rights in the state.

Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) officials were concerned that some attendees at their planned 2017 meeting could be denied services based on business owners' religious beliefs, the church's general minister and president Sharon E. Watkins said in a written statement.

"We are particularly distressed at the thought that … some of our members and friends might not be welcome in some Indiana businesses — might experience legally sanctioned bias and rejection once so common on the basis of race," she wrote.

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