After simmering on the back burner for several months, the question of whether to grant protected legal status to gay, lesbian and transgender people is again threatening to boil over.
Some northeast Indiana business leaders are approaching the topic carefully, afraid they’ll be burned.
But others statewide are turning up the heat.
The Indiana and Indianapolis chambers of commerce have made securing formal protections one of their priorities for the upcoming legislative session. Anything less, they argue, could cause Hoosier businesses to lose customers and the state to lose tourist dollars.
Indiana Competes, which held a kickoff event in Fort Wayne last week, is another business coalition fighting for new non-discrimination language. The nonpartisan nonprofit has attracted more than 200 members statewide, including large Indianapolis employers and at least a dozen local small businesses.
But the majority of major northeast Indiana employers and business organizations haven’t taken a public stand on the issue. When contacted by The Journal Gazette over the past two weeks, many of their leaders said they fully endorse equality when conducting daily operations – they just don’t actively lobby for it.
Parkview Health is one of those organizations.
Although the Fort Wayne health care provider monitors legislation related to sexual orientation and gender identity for purposes of dealing with patients and staff, Parkview officials aren’t eager to put themselves on the front line of the issue.
"If called upon and/or necessary, Parkview will consider sharing with state lawmakers the steps we have taken within our organization to update our policies and protections for employees and patients," spokesman Eric Clabaugh said in an email.
Most organizations provided statements, preferring to choose their words carefully.
Parkview previously has hired outside consultants to lobby legislators on various health care-related topics.
"Parkview’s interest is in what’s best for the patient," Clabaugh wrote. "If there is a bill introduced that may be of benefit to the patient and the care they receive, it’s not unusual for us to share our support for such measures. If proposed legislation can be of detriment to the patient, we will share our thoughts regarding the bill and possible solutions to help improve upon the final version before it is voted on."
Minding the store
Indiana was nationally condemned in the spring for adopting the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, also known as RFRA.
The law was widely viewed as making it legal for business owners to deny service to gay, lesbian and transgender customers. A baker, for example, wouldn’t be required to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple if the business owner’s religion condemns homosexuality.
Gov. Mike Pence quietly signed a legislative fix that says such service can’t be denied, but the state still doesn’t prohibit discrimination in hiring or housing based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Mark Millett, CEO of Steel Dynamics Inc., said his company opposed RFRA, but did so quietly.
The local steelmaker supports legal protections for people based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Millett said. The company hasn’t taken that stance publicly because executives’ focus is on running the business, which employs almost 8,000 at 85 locations.
"We have a very, very strong commitment" to equality, he said. "Our people, all our people, are incredibly important to us."
In fact, the employer hired a consulting firm about a year ago to address the issue. A transgender female trainer worked with executives, middle managers and supervisors to raise sensitivity to gender identity and sexual orientation-related issues, Millett said.
Marilyn Moran Townsend has participated in numerous business meetings during which participants discussed legal protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The CEO and co-founder of CVC Communications Inc. said some business owners expressed angst about taking a firm stand on the issue. They worry that doing so could financially damage their companies and, as a result, employees and shareholders, she said.
"While I can understand that point of view, I personally find it alarming when good and decent people stand by silently and embolden those with extreme views," Moran Townsend said, adding that "unspeakable things have been done to minorities."
Speaking for others?
Some organizations were formed specifically to represent business members on issues being discussed on the local, state and national levels, insulating individuals from unpopular political stances.
But even they are stepping carefully around perceived land mines.
Vince Buchanan, executive director of the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana, provided a statement that carefully avoids taking a stance on the issue while recognizing "the importance of assuring civil liberties for all Hoosiers and guests of our great state."
"We also recognize that religious freedom is a fundamental value in Indiana," he wrote.
"The members of the Regional Chamber believe it is important that the General Assembly not simply do ‘something,’ but in fact, after careful deliberation and open debate do the right thing for all Hoosiers," Buchanan said.
But he never states what that right thing is.
John Sampson, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, provided a statement careful not to support either the Republican or Democratic versions of bills that will be debated.
The organization, he said, "strongly supports the efforts at the state level to assure civil liberty protections to all Hoosiers."
"We support the efforts of the northeast Indiana legislative delegation in their leadership to represent the interests of the residents of our region," Sampson wrote.
Ron Turpin, chairman of Greater Fort Wayne Inc., was the rare executive who didn’t parse his words.
"We have been very consistent … in saying that our focus has been on creating a business-friendly environment that promotes and welcomes all aspects of diversity and talent," he said during a phone interview. "We will do nothing that’s inconsistent with that."
Turpin spoke before reviewing the two bills pertaining to sexual orientation and gender identity that have been submitted for General Assembly consideration.
Before backing any legislation, he said, his organization will consider how it might affect existing businesses. Greater Fort Wayne wouldn’t support something that overrides and lessens local protections already in place, he said.
Although Indiana law doesn’t recognize sexual orientation as a protected class similar to race and gender, Fort Wayne is one of a few communities that do have such bans.
Turpin agrees with Indiana Competes’ contention that the lack of legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people hurts the state in the areas of talent recruitment, employee retention and creating livable communities.
"Our focus," he said, "is on creating jobs."
Not their fight
Some of the biggest employers in northeast Indiana aren’t based here. They include General Motors, Lincoln, Kroger and Meijer.
Representatives for each said they don’t make a habit of lobbying legislatures in every state where they do business.
But they also offered up nondiscrimination policies that specifically include protections related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
Stephanie Jentgen, GM spokeswoman, wrote in an email that "the company prides itself on providing an inclusive and protective work environment for all … employees, including members of the LGBT community."
Annette Moser, Lincoln National Corp.’s local spokeswoman, declined to comment for this story, but the company has been considered a leader on LGBT issues.
The Human Rights Campaign Foundation, which advocates for equal rights for the LGBT community, gave both Lincoln and GM perfect scores on its 2016 Corporate Equality Index scorecard. They received 100 on a scale of zero to 100.
Kroger and American Electric Power received scores of 95.
Indiana Michigan Power is a unit of AEP.
Brian Bergsma, AEP’s director of communications and government affairs, emailed the company’s policy on equality in employment and work opportunities. It singles out sexual orientation and gender identity, among other categories including race, color, religion, gender, age, national origin and disability.
Shindigz, Franklin Electric, Lutheran Health Network and Vera Bradley submitted similar statements. So did IPFW, the Fort Wayne Black Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Fort Wayne Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Although Aunt Millie’s Bakeries also has a company policy that requires respect for all people, spokeswoman Melissa Dunning said the Fort Wayne company doesn’t see that any new law is necessary.