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EDITORIAL: Pence's muddled speech lacked leadership

January 16, 2016

Indiana is a divided state and Gov. Mike Pence, in his fourth State of the State address, did little to unite it.

The Republican leader had the opportunity to provide leadership in a fight that has pitted religious liberties against the civil rights of people who are gay and transgender. It would not have been easy to do so, particularly for a conservative who has built his political career on conservative social issues. But it didn’t seem that Pence even tried.

The governor said in his Jan. 12 speech that Hoosiers “do not tolerate discrimination against anyone.” However, he added that the Indiana Constitution prohibits laws that control the “free exercise and enjoyment of religious opinions, nor interfere with the rights of conscience.”

As such, Pence said he will “not support any bill that diminishes the religious freedom of Hoosiers or that interferes with the constitutional rights of our citizens to live out their beliefs in worship, service or work.”

But Pence did not say what that means—and that is the real question.

Legislators and advocates for gay rights are not seeking to trample on the religious liberties of others. Instead, they are trying to ensure that people aren’t denied an apartment because of their sexual orientation or that they aren’t kicked out of a restaurant because they were born a man but later became a woman. Advocates want to make it illegal to fire employees because of the things they do in the privacy of their bedrooms.

But balancing those rights with religious liberties is proving difficult. In Utah, policymakers appear to have struck some compromise in a law that bans housing and employment discrimination against LGBT people while also protecting religious institutions.

There are other ideas in the Indiana Legislature, including a Senate Republican plan to make sexual orientation and gender identity a protected class under the state’s civil rights law while offering some religious exemptions. Another GOP plan protects sexual orientation from discrimination and refers transgender rights to a study committee. But it’s not clear based on the governor’s State of the State address whether either of the ideas would be acceptable to him.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said he believes they would be—and maybe Pence has told him privately that’s true. But Pence had the opportunity in his State of the State address to explain his stand in detail to all Hoosiers. Instead, in what has become his calling card, Pence kept his comments vague.

Certainly, no one expected Pence to put LGBT civil rights on his legislative agenda. But asking him to provide leadership on what’s become Indiana’s most divisive issue—an issue he helped create—didn’t seem like too much to ask. It appears it was.

With eight weeks left before lawmakers adjourn for the year, there’s still time for Pence to lead on the issue. We hope that he will.•

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

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