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By NIKI KELLY
INDIANAPOLIS – The legislative session kicking off Jan. 5 can be summed up quickly as the Big Three: civil rights, roads and education.
Myriad topics will be addressed by the General Assembly, but none will eclipse those.
The issue of civil rights protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers will likely consume the most air during the short 10-week session.
“I have to admit that if we were having this conversation back in April, I said they would avoid taking the issue up,” said Andrew Downs, political science professor at IPFW. “I have been proven wrong now.”
Senate Republicans have already filed a bill adding sexual orientation and gender identity alongside race, gender and other characteristics as protected classes. But it also provides several exemptions for religious reasons.
Back in April, the state was reeling from a fight over a religious freedom bill that many saw as a way to allow businesses to refuse service to gays. The national fallout was so great that Gov. Mike Pence and lawmakers had to create a “fix” within days of passing and signing the new law.
But that opened discussion on the lack of state civil rights protections for the LGBT community. Dozens of cities around the state, including Fort Wayne, have local ordinances that protect against discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.
Downs said Senate Republicans put something out so they can control the debate and the process. Everything will now be an amendment to their bill, and with a reliable conservative Republican as author, he can spike the bill at any time if he doesn’t like the direction of the debate.
“They want to make it disappear as quickly as possible,” Downs said. “They don’t want it to overshadow everything else.”
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said it could be the toughest issue of his career, but he has generally left Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, to deal with it.
It will not be an easy sell in the Senate, which has a large wing of Christian conservatives.
“I’m not in favor of the bill,” Fort Wayne Sen. Liz Brown said, adding that nothing would make the bill more palatable.
“I just don’t support adding sexual orientation. I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t think we need to continue to make protected classes,” she said.
Democrats are pushing to add the classes without special exemptions for religious beliefs – such as allowing a baker or photographer to refuse to provide services for a same-sex wedding.
Pence, meanwhile, has refused to take a public stand either way.
To complicate matters, a lawsuit was filed this month against the bill that “fixed” the original Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“I’m against discrimination,” said Rep. Casey Cox, R-Fort Wayne. “I want to stick up for someone who is the subject of oppression, but let’s not be so naive to think the pendulum of oppression doesn’t swing.
“There are legitimate arguments by those against it,” he said. “It could be used as an instrument of conformity – to quiet unpopular religious beliefs.”
Cox hasn’t made a decision but said he generally favors freedom of conscience.SHARE THIS STORY