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UPDATE: Senate Republicans unveil draft of LGBT rights bill

November 17, 2015

A bill that will be considered by the Republican-controlled Indiana Senate prohibits discrimination in housing, education, public accommodations and employment based on sexual orientation and gender identity but has exceptions for religious organizations and some vendors who work in the wedding industry.

Senate Republicans released the draft of the legislation Tuesday afternoon after the Legislature’s Organization Day, a largely ceremonial session that is a precursor to the 2016 General Assembly.

The bill, authored by Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, would also prohibit local governments from enforcing ordinances that are stricter than state law, a provision that could preempt an Indianapolis civil rights ordinance.

It comes as a new poll finds that most Indiana voters support adding sexual orientation and gender identity to Indiana’s civil rights law.

The poll—conducted by Bellwether Research and paid for by former Angie’s List Inc. CEO and LGBT-rights advocate Bill Oesterle—almost mirrors results from a similar survey conducted in June.

“This consistency indicates stability of opinion, with intensity definitely on the side of those who support this change,” wrote pollster Christine Matthews in memo about the results.

At issue is whether the rights of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender should be protected in state law the same way they are for people based on race or religion. Advocates of the change say it’s the only way to ensure that a religious freedom law passed by the Legislature earlier this year does not allow discrimination against the LGBT community. The issue could dominate the 2016 session.

On Tuesday, supporters and opponents of expanding LGBT rights in Indiana descended on the Statehouse.

Members of Freedom Indiana dropped off 5,000 letters Tuesday morning addressed to lawmakers and advocating for an expansion of the civil rights law. Group members also prayed for lawmakers to expand rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people before turning the letters in.

More than 200 religious conservatives later held a rally in a Statehouse atrium. They prayed for lawmakers to not expand LGBT rights, saying those could be used to force Christian businesses to serve gay people. One pastor vowed to vote out lawmakers who support expanded LGBT rights.

But the poll of 600 registered voters statewide found that 55 percent of Hoosier voters support adding sexual orientation and gender identity to Indiana’s civil rights law. Thirty-three percent are opposed. The poll, which was conducted Oct. 19-21, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Six in 10 voters responding to the survey also said businesses should not be allowed to refuse service to gays and lesbians.

“Voters under 35 feel even more strongly: seven in 10 say businesses should not be allowed to refuse service based on sexual orientation,” Matthews said.

The poll found that 46 percent of likely Republican primary voters said a business should not be allowed to refuse service to a customer based on sexual orientation. The margin of error for Republican-only poll results was plus or minus 5 percentage points.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, pledged a thorough discussion of the issue and said changing “four words and a comma” to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the civil rights law leaves out Hoosiers who believe in religious freedom.

“Doing nothing leaves out the other half,” he said.

Holdman said his bill aims to balance both sides.

The bill says specifically that clergy or other religious leaders can't be required to conduct same-sex marriages. It also says that it's not discriminatory to provide separate bathrooms, dressing rooms or showers based on gender or establish dress codes based on gender. It would exempt wedding-related businesses with less than four employees from having to do work for a gay or lesbian couple. It would also exempt faith-based schools, adoption agencies and not-for-profits from complying.

Democrats in the House and Senate are advocating for full LGBT protections in the civil rights law. House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said “half measures” won’t be good enough.

"We're considering it a roadmap for discrimination and not a set of meaningful protections for LGBT people," said Jennifer Pizer, a lawyer for Lambda Legal, which supports gay rights.

For example, Pizer said, it would allow a Catholic hospital to fire a lesbian doctor. It also bans the state from withholding tax benefits, contracts and other benefits from religious organizations. That could allow social service providers with state contracts to turn away gays and lesbians, Pizer said.

Meanwhile, Freedom Indiana issued a statement Tuesday saying that, "We're encouraged that the Indiana Senate understands how important it is to address discrimination in Indiana and has made it a legislative priority to update our state civil rights law to protect gay and transgender people."

What remains unclear is whether the proposal is supported by the broader GOP-controlled Legislature or Republican Gov. Mike Pence, who said Tuesday morning that he hadn't closely studied and wouldn't comment. For months, Pence has issued similar responses when asked for his thoughts on LGBT rights, prompting Democrats to accuse him of ducking tough questions.

Long said Pence is "obviously aware" of the Senate bill and "can speak for himself." But he added that "I hope we've prepared a document that addresses all concerns on this issue."

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma is calling for a civil discussion about LGBT civil rights, but noted that "doing nothing is always an option."

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