Indianapolis Republican Mayoral candidate Jim Merritt—a state senator since 1991—on Thursday said he regretted his Senate vote for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015 and pledged to support the LGBTQ community if elected mayor.
Merritt, who sparked attention this week by announcing he would walk in Saturday's Indy Pride parade even though organizers said he wasn't welcome due to his Senate votes on LGBTQ issues, also said Thursday he has decided not to march in the parade.
“This is Indy Pride’s celebration and I do not wish to dampen it,” he said. “I have come to realize the reality of discrimination, fear and prejudice that has plagued the LGBTQ+ community for far too long.”
Merritt made the comments to reporters, but did not take questions after the event. He wouldn't say when he changed his mind about RFRA, which critics said would make it legal for people to discriminate under the protection of religious freedom. The law was amended within week's of its initial signing after an outcry from business, tourism and other groups.
“I do understand, though, that my learning, feelings and evolving knowledge may ring hollow to those troubled by my past voting record,” Merritt said. “They are right to say, ‘show me.’ Well, I have committed to show you, because actions truly are louder than words.”
Merritt said he voted for the RFRA because he felt he was “voting for religious freedom, which is a sacrosanct constitutional right.”
“In making that vote, I believed it to be a shield to protect the aggrieved,” he said.
But, he said, when he learned “it could be used as a sword against members of the LGBTQ+ community, I became an advocate for and voted in favor of the RFRA fix.”
RFRA, however, was not the only issue involving Merritt that concerned members of the LGBTQ community.
In 2012, Merritt sent a letter to the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles, asking them to revoke Indiana Youth Group’s specialty license plates, which support LGBTQ youth.
With respect to the letter, Merritt spokeswoman April Gregory told IBJ “that was a letter questioning the process by which an agency makes a decision.”
“He does regret anyone would think he was targeting a vulnerable group,” Gregory told IBJ.
Merritt also voted to define marriage as between one man and one woman as late as 2014, as did a majority of state lawmakers, including numerous Democrats.
On that issue, Gregory said “he evolved … like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Evan Bayh.”
“His views have changed,” she said.
Merritt also vowed, if elected as mayor, to “work with the state legislature and governor to seek and ensure hate crimes protections for transgender and non-binary people” and to “pass employment, housing and public accommodate protections for LGBTQ+ people.”
He also vowed to recruit LGBTQ+ people to city leadership positions, “not as tokens, but as meaningful advisers and decision makers for our city,” and create a diversity department that will “actively support all disadvantaged people.”
In a written statement, Indy Pride said the organization “appreciates his decision to forgo the Indy Pride Parade this weekend.”
“We welcome him to join LGBTQ+ Hoosiers and allies in the fight of equality and nondiscrimination for all,” the organization said. “The goals outlined in his statement are objectives our community has fought to accomplish for decades.”
“Indy Pride’s focus this weekend is a celebration of the history, culture, struggle, and bravery of the LGBTQ+ community.”