A bill that would extend civil rights protections to lesbian, gay and bisexual—but not transgender—people is expected to be voted on by the Indiana Senate next week, even if it goes down in defeat.
"This will come to the floor," GOP Senate President David Long said during a Thursday news conference in the same chamber where the bill will be debated. "This is of importance to the entire state, regardless of which way it goes."
For Long, the vote would fulfill a vow made amid uproar last March when Indiana drew unwanted and widespread criticism for a religious freedom law that garnered quick and largely negative national backlash, with critics saying it sanctioned discrimination against gay people on religious grounds. Lawmakers hastily made changes days later, after the NCAA, the gamer convention GenCon and other business interests raised the possibility of moving events. Critics said it still doesn't go far enough to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination.
Long promised at the time that the issue of LGBT rights would be addressed during the legislative session that is now underway.
But even if the bill he backs is passed by the full Senate, the likelihood it will be enacted into law is far from certain. It was advanced by a Senate committee Wednesday, but has been panned by people on both sides of the issue. And Republican Gov. Mike Pence, who counts evangelical Christians as his traditional vote base, said he will prioritize religious freedom over LGBT rights.
Long says the point of the bill is to find a way to offer protections to gays and lesbians while also protecting religious freedoms. The measure would allow cities such as Indianapolis that have LGBT civil rights ordinances to keep the more robust laws. But it also offers a wide list of religious exemptions for clergy, small businesses and religious organizations — including groups that offer social services or have state contracts.
House Speaker Brian Bosma said Thursday that he has "yet to talk to someone who thinks it's a good idea."
Democrats and LGBT rights supporters—including Indiana business leaders—excoriated the bill for not going far enough because it does nothing to help transgender people who are fired from a job, denied service or evicted because of their gender identity. It was also criticized by conservatives who say it could force Christians to perform certain services over their religious objections.
"It's very difficult to balance freedom of conscience and discrimination issues," Bosma said. "The advocates on all sides seem to be opposed to it."
Many religious conservatives have said they won't support any bill they believe would diminish religious freedoms. The oft-cited example is a photographer, baker or wedding planner working for a same-sex couple. But LGBT rights supporters and many business groups say anything short of full gender identity and sexual orientation protections make Indiana look backward and unwelcoming.
"The far right, the far left are so passionate on this. There's no give with those groups," Long said. "But those are extreme positions, and you have to remember that."