Gov. Mike Pence owes the state leadership on LGBT issues that have damaged our reputation nationally while creating an ugly chasm among Hoosiers.
Pence helped to create the problem earlier this year when he pushed the General Assembly to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law that was a poor solution in search of a largely non-existent problem.
Supporters say RFRA was meant to provide legal protections for business owners who take actions in line with their religious beliefs. But the law’s most ardent supporters said specifically it was meant to ensure that bakers, photographers and other companies would not have to serve same-sex couples. Therefore, opponents claimed, it would authorize discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender Hoosiers.
The debate put Indiana in the national spotlight just as other states and the federal courts were taking actions to extend more rights to the LGBT community. And the decision to pass the law came over the objections of business leaders who said it would make it harder for them to recruit the types of workers that would keep Indiana competitive.
Pence—who has repeatedly said that a strong economy and jobs issues are his top priorities—made the situation worse last spring when he went on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos and said it was “absolutely not” a mistake to sign the bill into law. He went on to decline to answer questions about whether the law would allow companies to refuse service to LGBT Hoosiers.
Eventually, Pence did sign a “fix”—a sort of compromise brokered in part by business leaders—that’s meant to ensure the law can’t be used to justify discrimination. But by the time that happened, Hoosiers of all backgrounds had started to call for something much broader: full civil rights protections statewide based on sexual orientation.
Republicans—who control the Indiana House and Senate—have been considering their legislative options behind closed doors, opting against a public committee process to vet the proposed change.
Meanwhile, Pence also has been meeting quietly with advisers and others to try to find a compromise that addresses the controversy while still maintaining his status among religious conservatives.
It’s not clear, though, that such a compromise exists—at least not anymore.
Had Pence never pushed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, it’s likely he could have won support for some kind of law like one passed in Utah. The Utah compromise provides housing and employment protections to gays and lesbians but stops short of offering the same protections for so-called public accommodations, which include buses and restaurants.
But that kind of law is not likely to be hailed as a victory in Indiana. Not now. Not after all that’s happened, not after all that Pence has put Indiana through.
It’s time for Pence to lead—and there’s only one place to go: Full civil rights protections based on sexual orientation.
The move may not put him in good stead with social conservatives, but Indiana needs to make the public statement—a national statement—that it’s the warm and welcoming place that we all enjoy.•
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