Behind closed doors, Gov. Mike Pence and a close group of advisers are searching for a solution to a controversy that could threaten his re-election.
The goal is to head off another ugly debate next year between Hoosiers who want clear protections for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people and the religious community who wants the freedom to preserve its conservative principles.
So Pence and his team are in search of a compromise.
The goal of the talks, which are to continue Oct. 5, is to find a way to repair relationships on both sides of the debate—and avoid the controversy dominating Pence’s re-election campaign and another legislative session.
“Hoosiers want fairness and want people to be treated with respect,” said Robert Vane, Pence’s campaign spokesman.
“That includes the LGBT community and that includes people with a deep religious faith who perhaps feel closed in or somewhat threatened by the idea that their religious freedom is being impinged by new laws and new court decisions,” Vane said. “We’re going to be putting those views together and come up with a common-sense solution for Indiana.”
The administration is still reeling from the national uproar over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act Pence championed during last spring’s legislative session.
In signing the law, he faced considerable opposition in the business community, where leaders argued any efforts perceived to be discriminatory against gays would hurt their efforts to recruit and retain employees. And the subsequent “fix” the governor signed in response hurt his reputation with far-right and evangelical conservatives, who said he was rolling over to appease liberals.
Jim Kittle, former chairman of the Indiana Republican Party, said the governor “totally understands” that the issue has been a distraction for the state.
“I think he is going to take the time to listen,” Kittle said. “And I believe he will lead, and not necessarily throw it back to the House or Senate, who I think didn’t do a good job to begin with.”
Curt Smith is president of the Indiana Family Institute and has been part of what he described as “casual chats” with the governor about the issue. He said compromise might be impossible, but he said the talks are an important tool to build good will with “lots of emotional players on both sides.”
“I don’t see how these principles can be reconciled or compromised,” Smith said. “I think they’re just at odds. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to put on our thinking cap. It doesn’t mean we need to be anxious or fatalistic or resigned, but the principle of religious freedom versus sexual orientation as a new protected class—you just can’t square those things. It’s one or the other.”
Most of those close to the talks are reticent to discuss the issues publicly. Several business leaders who were involved in developing the RFRA fix earlier this year declined to comment or did not return messages.
Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed about the issue. House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, did not return a request for comment. The legislative leaders have been largely mum since opting earlier this year not to launch a public study of the LGBT issues but instead to discuss the matter privately.
“It seems like politics kept them from studying the issue” in a public committee, said Rep. Dan Forestal, D-Indianapolis.
Others, though, are watching. Former Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle, a Republican and outspoken critic of the religious freedom law, said Hoosiers are looking for Pence to lead. He’s rallying the tech and business community around the need for clear LGBT civil rights protections in hopes of persuading Pence and legislative leaders.
“There’s an opportunity for the governor to step forward and lead on this issue,” Oesterle said. “I’m hopeful he will. The state needs a resolution here and the governor is in a position to do it. But I hope he realizes that these are very basic clear protections and they ought to be applied to this community.”
Ed Feigenbaum, a longtime Indiana Statehouse and political observer who writes the Indiana Legislative Insight newsletter, first published news of the talks this week.
“We’ve been picking up signals that [Pence] continues to look for that ‘third way,’ if not middle ground,” he wrote.
Being proactive with a possible compromise could be the best of several tenuous options for the governor in this situation, Feigenbaum said.
Pence’s approval rating has dwindled since the issue exploded last spring. A June 17 Bellwether Research poll found that a majority of voters want a new governor and Democrats have seized on the opportunity by criticizing Pence’s actions.
“Leadership is probably his best option here, but he also risks coming out with something that is not a viable alternative and getting hammered by both sides,” Feigenbaum said, “or coming out with something that was totally opposite from what he wanted in the beginning.”
In search of a middle ground, Pence’s team has looked Southwest at the so-called “Utah compromise” as a potential model. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and gay rights advocates came together earlier this year to back a bill in Utah’s Republican-controlled Legislature. The law bans housing and employment discrimination against LGBT people while also protecting religious institutions.
The move has been hailed by some as extraordinary and a breakthrough on a social issue that has sharply divided the country in recent years. Others have criticized it for offering troubling exemptions for religious and other not-for-profit groups.
Following Utah’s lead could prove tricky in Indiana, Oesterle said, because Hoosiers already have clear protections in Indiana’s civil rights law.
But there is room to forge a possible compromise, he said.
“Indiana has some of the best religious freedom protections in the country,” Oesterle said. “There’s certainly opportunity to clarify some of those protections and restate them so that they’re well understood and there’s no interpretation problems.
“But fundamentally, the Indiana code protects lots of different groups, and it does so beautifully,” he said. “It’s going to be important to preserve that beauty and simplicity when dealing with the LGBT community.”
Pence’s communications director, Matt Lloyd, would not discuss the private talks but said the governor “is leading on all issues important to Hoosiers.”
“He has made it clear that he wants input on how to move forward on this issue as well,” Lloyd said, “and Hoosiers are engaged with the governor in that conversation.”•