Gay-advocacy group gears up for civil rights campaign

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Gay rights group Freedom Indiana is gearing up for a statewide campaign to support updating existing state laws against discrimination to add protections for gay and transgendered people.

The group has named Chris Paulsen to lead the campaign, which officially launched Wednesday. Paulsen formerly served as president of Indiana Equality Action.

Freedom Indiana expects to move into downtown offices this week and begin hiring workers to assist with statewide outreach and education, according to an announcement from the group.

The group hopes to spur political leaders to expand Indiana’s civil rights to include sexual orientation and gender identity. The state’s next legislative session will begin in January.

The issue of expanding civil rights protections stems from the contentious battle earlier this year over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence but quickly amended after an uproar over concern that it could sanction discrimination of gays and lesbians.

Indiana's Republican-controlled Legislature added language stating that service providers couldn’t use the law as a legal defense for refusing to provide goods, services, facilities or accommodations based on sexual orientation, gender identity and other factors. It became the first Indiana state law that explicitly mentioned sexual orientation and gender identity.

After that victory for gay-rights advocates, they called for more explicit protections in state law. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and fellow Republicans maintained this spring that making changes to the state's civil rights law was too major of a policy change to take up with less than a month left in the legislative session.

State Senate President David Long has acknowledged "it's probably likely" that extending anti-discrimination laws to cover sexual orientation will be on next year's agenda.

Paulsen said in a prepared release that the changes would be simple: adding “sexual orientation, gender identity” to the section of state code that already contains protections based on race, gender, veteran status and religion.

"No one is asking for special rights. We're just asking lawmakers to ensure fair treatment of groups of citizens who have historically been treated unequally, and we hope they'll act quickly in the upcoming session," Paulsen said.

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