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EDITORIAL: Echo chamber hurts Hoosiers

April 4, 2015

Let’s hope Indiana’s Republican leadership has learned a valuable lesson about hubris from the imbroglio they created over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The firestorm set off by Gov. Pence’s signing of Senate Enrolled Act 101 could have been avoided had House and Senate leadership not used supermajorities to ramrod the bill through the process and ignore warnings from Democrats, local business leaders and the Indy Chamber.

Now everyone who calls themselves a Hoosier is left to fix the damage to the state’s reputation. The repair will take years, starting with proposed new legislation, under discussion at press time, that would “clarify” the bill to prevent its use as a justification for discrimination.

When voters entrust a party with majorities the size Republicans enjoy in Indiana—40-10 in the Senate and 71-29 in the House—the responsibility ought to make lawmakers tremble. Temptations to run roughshod over the opposition, and their often-wise warnings, run high, and indeed did during debate leading to passage of the “religious freedom” bill. Three amendments that could have blunted the impact and shown the state is inclusive and open to everyone were rejected.

Conceited power isn’t unique to Republicans, at least outside Indiana. Democrats succumbed to a similar temptation in 2010 when they pushed the Affordable Care Act into law over Republican objections. The parallel with Indiana is not precise in that the federal act was intended to offer more people health insurance, while Indiana’s bill looks like payback for last year’s lost attempt to add a constitutional amendment preventing same-sex marriage. The state’s three most prominent anti-gay activists stood behind Pence at the private bill signing.

Nevertheless, unwillingness to listen to the opposition has left Americans mired in bitter lawsuits over the ACA and now in Indiana, travel bans and lost business and prestige.

Indiana could learn a lot from Utah about balancing religious and LGBT freedoms. In March, the Beehive State passed legislation hailed by both Mormon and gay leaders as groundbreaking for protecting their interests.

Mormon leaders first approached the LGBT community about finding common ground for legislation both parties felt they needed. Long conversations, which were not comfortable at first, led to what has been hailed around the country as the “Utah compromise.”

The law, passed by huge margins similar to those in Indiana, prevents discriminating against LGBT people on employment and housing matters, while offering religious-conscience protections for employees as well as schools, charities and other institutions.

Back in Indiana, the General Assembly ought to incorporate LGBT protections similar to those on the books in Indianapolis for a decade. As in Utah, legislators should demand balance between personal and religious liberties.

Pence and Republican lawmakers have expressed shock at the negative blowback from the “religious freedom” bill. To avoid a repeat performance, they should make a point of venturing outside their echo chamber.•

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