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By Dave Bangert
For something that wasn’t even part of the legislative priorities released last week by Republican leadership in the Indiana House and Senate, you sure do need a scorecard to keep up on bills that have something to do with offering equal rights for gays and lesbians in this state.
Same goes with bills aimed at protecting the rights of those who don’t want to be compelled to serve, celebrate around, deal with bathroom breaks of, or even be bothered by gay, lesbian and transgender Hoosiers.
As easy as it could have been to clearly state that Indiana is, despite what national media contends, a place where discrimination isn’t going to be tolerated, the post-Religious Freedom Restoration Act landscape remains complicated.
Adding to the mix last week was state Sen. Brandt Hershman, a Republican who lives in Tippecanoe County and is majority floor leader in the Senate. His move: Signing on with Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, as an author of Senate Bill 344.
It was the fourth bill introduced in the General Assembly’s first week that in some direct way took on the question of civil rights for gays and lesbians. Senate Bill 344 takes a step back from Holdman’s conversation starter — Senate Bill 100’s LGBT protections tempered with ample exemptions to appease the religious right — by holding off on including protections for transgender residents until there’s time to study it a bit more.
So a cynical call came to Hershman as he rounded out the first week of the General Assembly’s short session.
Is this just a game of hedging? Is it just muddying the waters to have so many bills, each with a slightly different take on the balance between LGBT rights and religious rights? Is the end game to have each one make it easier for legislators to shrug their shoulders and declare that they tried once the end of the session rolls around in March?
Is there even a chance something will get done a year after everything went haywire around the Religious Freedom Restoration Act?
“I would say what you’re seeing is an evolution in this debate,” Hershman said. “Will something get done? I’d say yes. … I would say the fact that you see multiple approaches to this question, multiple ideas, is an honest effort to make some headway.”
Senate Bill 344 landed with a thud among those pushing from both sides.
Freedom Indiana, a leading pro-LGBT rights organizer, called SB 344 “a nonstarter that offers zero protections for transgender people of Indiana.” Indiana Competes, a coalition of businesses still seething over the public relations disaster of RFRA, echoed the sentiment.
Meanwhile, the Indiana Pastors Alliance railed on SB 344 the way it railed on SB 100 before it, calling both efforts “special rights” that force “a Christian to compartmentalize their faith to the location of their local church.”
Hershman brushed aside the loudest and most pointed rhetoric from both sides, calling the immediate rejection of proposed compromises little more than noise.
“I would say most of Indiana isn’t as interested in this as your various interest groups would lead you to believe,” Hershman said. “I wouldn’t say that in a snide fashion. But look at Lafayette and Tippecanoe County. Are you aware of any religious liberty infractions that have occurred or intrusions that have occurred in Tippecanoe County? I have not. Are you aware of any discriminatory practices that have occurred against the gay and lesbian community in Tippecanoe County or Lafayette? I’m not. …
“So what legitimate degree of a problem exists — on both sides? That’s the balance I’m looking to find here.”
That starts, he said, getting the debate out of the bathroom. Hershman said there was a growing concern that any bill that includes legal protections based on gender ID along with those based on sexual orientation — whether in SB 100 or the Democrats’ “four words and a comma” approach of Senate Bill 2 — devolve into a question of public bathrooms and who can go where.
“It’s not that we can’t have the discussion,” Hershman said. “But I think it’s simplistic and ultimately detrimental to have the debate revolve only around that. … And I think the popular culture — the whole Caitlyn Jenner thing — has brought (questions about gender ID) to the fore in a way it hasn’t before. I think many people in the general public are struggling to come to grips with their own feelings on these issues.”
A separate bill dealing with single-sex bathrooms and who may use them is being carried by Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville. Senate Bill 35 last week was assigned to the Senate Public Policy Committee, where state Sen. Ron Alting is chairman. In an email last week, Alting, a Lafayette Republican, said he had no plans to give SB 35 a hearing.
Last week, Alting also filed his own version of a civil rights measure. Senate Bill 170essentially adds sexual orientation and gender identity to Indiana’s civil rights codes, in much the same way the Democrats are pushing. Alting said he expected SB 170 to take a back seat to other, similar bills — “just a tool in the toolbox in case we need it.”
The cynical call to Hershman continues: Couldn’t it still be that easy?
Hershman, standing between 14th Amendment rights for equal protection and First Amendment rights for religious belief, says he respectfully disagrees. Senate Bill 344’s mix-and-match protections for both sides is his opening testimony.
“For something some would say is as simple as adding a few words, it gets complex in a big hurry,” Hershman said. “In terms of finding that balance, I’m not there yet.”
Feel free to blast it. Plenty of people have and will. But the debate over civil rights is still a painfully slow evolution in Indiana.SHARE THIS STORY