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EDITORIAL: Encouraging start for LGBT debate

November 21, 2015

It was just weeks ago that IBJ called for full civil rights protections based on sexual orientation in Indiana. We said it was the only place to go after Gov. Mike Pence led Indiana down an embarrassing path over religious freedom and sexual orientation issues that unnecessarily divided Hoosiers.

And while we still believe that simply adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the civil rights law makes the most sense, it is with cautious optimism that we welcome a proposal from Senate Republicans that goes further than we expected.

The legislation—to be carried in the 2016 session by Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle—bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity for housing, education, public accommodations and employment but has exceptions for religious organizations and some vendors who work in the wedding industry.

Holdman called the proposal a compromise, a balance between protecting religious liberty and the civil rights of the LGBT community. As an opening salvo, it’s heartening.

We have concerns. The legislation would supersede local ordinances, which means the LGBT community could lose protections in Indianapolis and a dozen other places with civil rights ordinances that include sexual orientation.

It also aims to define transgender for the purposes of the law—a prickly proposition—essentially requiring someone to live as his or her preferred gender for one year, or get a physician’s opinion, before gaining the ability to file a discrimination complaint.

And finally, the legislation attempts to deal with an increasingly difficult problem about which rest room a transgender person can use. That might sound relatively trivial in the larger debate about discrimination, but it’s an issue cropping up across the country, particularly in schools that are trying to accommodate transgender students.

Holdman’s legislation would let businesses set rest room policies without fear of being hit with a discrimination case, a provision sure to lead to questions and debate.

As expected, the Republican plan found mixed reviews.

Freedom Indiana—the group that has been most active in the fight for LGBT civil rights—had a guarded response to the proposal, saying it was “encouraged” Senate Republicans have made it a legislative priority to address discrimination against the LGBT community.

But Jennifer Pizer, a lawyer for Lambda Legal, which supports gay rights, called the legislation “a roadmap for discrimination” that does not protect LGBT people.

And some conservatives were skeptical as well, saying the bill goes too far. Critics noted, for instance, that small companies would essentially give up their religious beliefs if they wanted to add employees beyond the cap for the small firm exemption.

We understand the concerns and questions. By carving out exemptions, Senate Republicans are taking legislation that could be relatively simple and making it complicated.

Still, we respect the desire to protect religious liberty. The question is whether those protections already exist. We believe they do. But we respect a discussion about that and advocate that the Republican proposal serve as a starting point for thoughtful debate.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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