Bill would protect sexual orientation, punt on gender identity

A Republican state senator’s answer to the debate over gay rights and religious freedom would protect gay, lesbian and bisexual Hoosiers from employment, housing and public accommodations discrimination but would exclude transgender people and punt the debate on their issues until next year.

Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, who said he proposed the bill as an alternative to a plan previously floated by Senate Republicans, would still include religious liberty and “conscience” exemptions for some marriage-related small businesses and let communities keep existing human rights ordinances.

Holdman said it could be an easier sell to those in his caucus who have accepted gay people but aren’t quite there with transgender people due to concerns about which bathroom facilities they would use.

“Folks understand the gay issue, the lesbian issue, the bisexual issue,” Holdman said. “The transgender piece is different enough. … The whole psychology of that is just different enough. It takes away some of the angst folks were having, because folks don’t understand the issue. It’s sort of a compromise piece.”

Holdman’s bill, filed as SB 344, also prohibits discrimination based on active duty military status and veteran status.

It would charge a legislative study committee with examining gender identity discrimination issues after the current legislative session. He said that would allow them to make transgender rights a “centerpiece issue.”

"This issue isn't going away," Holdman said. "It gives the transgender community center stage on this issue and lets those folks plead their case."

The bill grandfathers in existing local non-discrimination ordinances, but would prohibit communities from passing new laws.

Holdman said it was important to respect communities that have put in place stronger protections. Indianapolis, for instance, has had its law on the books since 1995. Bloomington started providing protections for sexual orientation in 1993, and added protections for transgender people in 2006.

The bill followed a call by another Senate colleague to repeal the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the controversial law passed in the last session that many interpreted as a license for discrimination and prompted a revision to address the issue.

Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, has filed a bill that would repeal RFRA and raise up and re-affirm certain existing constitutional rights, such as the freedom of religious, the right of conscience, the freedom of thought and speech, and the right to bear arms.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said he believed the Senate bills were “very good-faith efforts.” The House Republican caucus was not planning its own bill to address RFRA, but would welcome a chance to address bills from the Senate, he said.

Gay rights groups and Democrats decried the bills.

Freedom Indiana, which advocates for gay and transgender rights, called the proposal a “non-starter.”

“The more lawmakers try to dance around the need for real, clear LGBT protections, the more it looks like they want a way to maintain the status quo: a state where you can be fired, denied housing or turned away from public places because of who you are or whom you love,” the group wrote in a written statement.

Indiana Competes, a coalition of businesses supporting LGBT rights, said removing rights for transgender people “undercuts our work to keep Indiana an attractive place to do business.”

House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said the Republicans are “trapped” in finding a piecemeal solution. He said it would be best for Indiana to pass a comprehensive bill and move forward so the state can avoid another negative national media blitz.

“Four words and a comma is what will make this go away,” Pelath said. “When you keep moving around pieces of the puzzle, you’re continually upsetting new groups of people. The national media is going to be watching very closely. I hope they embrace a final conclusion. It will be best for the state.”

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