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It’s a good start — even a remarkable start — given where Indiana lawmakers were on the issue of LGBT rights only eight months ago.
This week, Republican leaders in the state Senate introduced legislation that would recognize sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under Indiana’s civil rights law.
We have to go back only to March to find those same legislators helping push through the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which included an override on local governments’ protections against discrimination suffered by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers. Amid an intense public outcry, legislators quickly passed an amended version of the law to eliminate the override.
Now, Indiana on a state level may be poised for the first time in its 200-year history to embrace LGBT rights in a big way. The proposal not only includes penalties for discrimination on the job and in housing but also would require the vast majority of businesses to provide equal accommodation for LGBT citizens.
The scope and speed of progress this year has been remarkable indeed.
Still, as introduced, Senate Bill 100 is far from perfect.
The biggest problem: state lawmakers are again proposing to trump local laws. A provision in the legislation would block local governments from enforcing civil rights protections stronger than those included in state law.
Yet, Indianapolis and several other communities already have laws in place that offer more comprehensive protections than the proposed legislation. For those communities, adoption of the legislative proposal, as it stands now, would be a step backward.
As the legislation progresses in the General Assembly early next year, the local override provision must be eliminated.
SB 100 also includes questionable exemptions for the smallest providers of wedding services (four or fewer full-time employees) who for religious reasons decline to serve same-sex couples. The exemptions are intended to address strong objections from many conservatives who fear that the state will violate religious liberty protections if the civil rights law is expanded. On a practical political level, they’re also an attempt to secure enough votes in the Republican-dominated Senate and House to assure the bill’s passage.
But those carve-outs could open the door to blatant discrimination, and they raise the question of why LGBT Hoosiers should be treated differently than other citizens protected by the civil rights law.
One other disappointment: Gov. Mike Pence, despite having studied the issue for months, still has not announced where he stands on civil rights expansion. The governor needs either to signal his support for this new proposal or to introduce his own, even stronger, measure. And he needs to do it soon.
Still, let’s not lose sight of how far we’ve come — and how much hard work it’s taken by business, community and legislative leaders to get here. The legislation introduced this week includes all of the essentials, and there’s ample time between now and the session’s end in March to fix the weaknesses.
Critical ground has been gained, and the rapid progress is welcome. But substantial work remains to fix certain troubling provisions in Senate Bill 100, starting with elimination of the local override.SHARE THIS STORY