State Republicans are set to add protections to the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act that specifically prevent businesses from refusing service to customers because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The plan announced Thursday morning drew a positve response from a wide array of groups and businesses, but not everybody was sold on the legislative effort, including Angie's List Inc. CEO Bill Oesterle, who put a $40 million business expansion on hold because of the law.
The proposed “fix” for the law says the act does not give business owners, including those seeking employees and housing companies, the right to deny service to a person who is gay. It also says the original bill cannot be used as a defense in a discrimination lawsuit.
However, churches, religious schools and ministers remain exempt from those provisions.
Outrage erupted across the country after Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed the bill into law last Thursday. But Pence and Republican leaders continue to insist that the bill does not give anyone a license to discriminate.
GOP leaders say they believe the clarifying language, which was added to Senate Bill 50, demonstrates the state’s commitment to inclusion.
“Religious rights and individual rights can exist in harmony,” Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said.
Pence asked the General Assembly to create the new legislation Tuesday, saying he thinks the issue is with the perception of the law, not its actual content.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said the governor has been “actively involved” in the creation of the fix. But he also said the governor had not yet “made his course of action clear” as to if or when he will sign the change into law.
Business leaders joined Long and Bosma in the House chamber on Thursday as they presented the new language to the public.
Several business owners have threatened to take jobs and investment out of Indiana if RFRA was not repealed or amended. But the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and several big employers said Thursday the new bill is beginning to alleviate their concerns.
“This is a positive first step,” former Indianapolis Mayor and current Eli Lilly Senior Vice President Bart Peterson said.
Chris Douglas, who founded the Indianapolis Rainbow Chamber of Commerce, said he began fighting RFRA before it was signed, but is pleased with this first effort to amend the original bill.
“We know that this is only the beginning,” Douglas said. “This is the Indiana we know.”
Katie Blair, campaign manager for Freedom Indiana, a group that advocates for gay rights, called the proposal a “step in the right direction that takes us closer” to the larger goal of protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination.
"Today, the harm has been lessened, but we have not reached the day when LGBT Hoosiers can be assured that they can live their lives with freedom from discrimination,” Blair said.
Cummins, Anthem, Dow AgroSciences and Indiana University Health — some of the state’s largest employers — also expressed their support.
Oesterle, however, was blunt in his disagreement:
“Our position is that this 'fix' is insufficient," he said in written statement. "There was no repeal of RFRA and no end to discrimination of homosexuals in Indiana. Employers in most of the state of Indiana can fire a person simply for being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Questioning. That’s just not right and that’s the real issue here. Our employees deserve to live, work and travel with open accommodations in any part of the state."
Earlier this week, state Democrats called for a total repeal of RFRA, but Republicans said they won’t consider that option.
“That would be sending the exact wrong message,” Long said.
Democrats conceded that even if RFRA was not repealed, they would be satisfied with adding specific protections for same-sex couples to the state’s Civil Rights Act, a move Bosma said could not be considered this late in the session.
But Long said it is “probably likely” that a bill to add that amendment to the Civil Rights Act will be considered next session.
A committee of two members from both chambers are currently considering SB 50.