The Indiana Senate won’t act on a controversial bill that would have extended civil rights to gay and lesbian Hoosiers but not those who are transgender, effectively killing the legislation for the session.
The bill was expected to be called Tuesday for amendments. But after a Senate Republican caucus, the bill’s author—Sen. Travis Holdman—announced it would not come to the floor because it did not have enough support to pass. That means it won’t be eligible for a vote by Wednesday’s deadline for action.
Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said extending rights to transgender people seemed to be the sticking point in the Senate Republican caucus, leading them to decide that the bill didn’t have enough support to move forward.
“We are divided on the issue of transgender rights,” Long said. “The T [in LGBT] is a stumbling block at the moment. We just couldn’t get past that. We did our level best.”
Democrats said they tried to offer a compromise in the form of modifying the bill to simply cover housing and employment nondiscrimination—leaving the issue of public accommodations, such as restrooms, to another day—if Republicans would have included transgender people.
“There’s no such thing as near equality,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. “It’s a matter of principle. We believe transgender people deserve protection.”
The bill under consideration would have extended civil rights protections to gay and lesbian Hoosiers but punted the issue of transgender discrimination to a summer study committee. It also offered religious exemptions for clergy and other groups.
The Senate Rules and Legislative Procedure Committee last week approved the bill 7-5, making it eligible for consideration by the full Senate.
Holdman, an evangelical Christian, said he faced criticism from both the left and the right in trying to advance a compromise bill and said he was “very sorry” about the message the bill sends to the transgender community.
“There’s some political realities you have to deal with,” Holdman said. “I’m very sorry.”
The Senate’s move alleviates some political pressure on Gov. Mike Pence, who was criticized by Indiana businesses for his reluctance to weigh in on the debate at the Statehouse—and his failure to provide lawmakers much direction in the State of the State address.
Long said he believed that the bill would have met the governor’s standard that he wouldn’t sign anything that infringed on religious freedom, but he’s not totally sure.
“He won’t have to decide that now,” Long said. “He didn’t show his cards.”
Lanane criticized the governor for not giving the legislature more direction.
“I feared this whole issue was in trouble when I heard the State of the State address,” Lanane said.
Long said he would commit that the Senate would introduce another bill next legislative session. But he said he feared the issue might get decided by the courts before the legislature has another chance to act. And he said gay rights are likely inevitable.
"I fear and expect religious freedom and liberty will be the losers if the court are the ones to decide this issue," Long said.
Freedom Indiana, a group advocating for civil rights for the LGBT community, called the decision disappointing, even though it considered the proposal deeply flawed. The group’s leaders had hoped to convince lawmakers to make key changes.
"We've said from the outset that doing nothing was not an option,” Freedom Indiana said in a written statement. “Today, lawmakers did nothing to help protect LGBT people in our state, but our work is only just beginning.”
But opponents of gay rights lauded the decision to kill the bill. Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana, said "Indiana is not a state that mistreats people" and that continuing a divisive debate would not be productive.
"Laws that single out and punish citizens on the basis of their peaceably expressed beliefs should be rejected, and so we are pleased that the Senate stopped pushing the measure forward," Clark said in a statement. "Every Hoosier should be free to live and work according to their faith without fear of punishment from the state."
The debate comes nearly one year after Gov. Mike Pence signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics said would make it easier for businesses to discriminate against customers who are gay and transgender.
A national outcry led the General Assembly to approve a “fix” that said the law could not be used as a defense in discrimination cases. But the uproar led LGBT advocates to lobby for adding sexual oriental and gender identity to the state’s existing civil rights law, which now protects people from discrimination based on race and religion.
Pence has not embraced those calls and, in his State of the State address, said he would not support any law that could infringe on Hoosiers’ ability to express or practice their religious beliefs.
Holdman said he had hoped his bill balanced those competing interests, although the language that emerged from the Senate Rules Committee was roundly criticized by all sides.
Still, Holdman said, “the underlying issue is not going away.”
“I feel like no matter what I do, no matter what I propose, I cannot move these walls that are on the right and the left because nobody wants to give,” Holdman said. "Nobody wants to move.”
Peter Hanscom, who leads the business group Indiana Competes, said in a statement that the bill had “generated the most substantive conversation Indiana has seen regarding anti-discrimination legislation for the LGBT community.”
“From the outset, companies large and small organized together to work with lawmakers to find a sensible solution that provides equal protections for LGBT Hoosiers and tells the true story about the negative effects of RFRA on our state's economy,” Hanscom said. “Indiana’s economic competitiveness and the Hoosier brand have potentially been compromised again. Failure to continue working toward a remedy casts doubt on the sincerity of the Senate’s effort.”
The Indy Chamber said SB 344 wasn't perfect, but would have been a "major step forward."
"Despite its failure in the Senate, the expansion of statewide non-discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity remains squarely on the pro-business agenda," the Chamber said in a written statement.
And Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett said that by "refusing to take a step forward in the march toward equality this year, the General Assembly risks Indiana falling even more behind.”
Long: "we don't know what the message was from down on the 2nd floor." Yes, @GovPenceIN gave 3rd floor #INLegis little help on this.
— Mary Beth Schneider (@marybschneider) February 2, 2016
Sen. Holdman announced today SB 344 will not advance. Read his statement here: https://t.co/pzKg2EG7PQ #INLegis
— INSenateRepublicans (@INSenateGOP) February 2, 2016
#LGBT Hoosiers face legalized discrimination each & every day. Inaction on #SB344 does NOTHING to fix that. #INLegis
— Freedom Indiana (@freedom_indiana) February 2, 2016
Sen. Long says he wants to see LGBT rights/religious freedom bill next session. Says LGBT civil rights will be law in Indiana at some point
— Brandon J. Smith (@brandonjsmith5) February 2, 2016