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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 10:36 am

GOP brass near deal on religion law

Niki Kelly The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Republican lawmakers appeared to reach a tentative deal late Wednesday night to clarify a controversial religious freedom law that has led to a flurry of negative coverage and economic damage.

“We’ve had a very productive discussion, and it’s my hope that we meet our goal tomorrow of coming to a successful conclusion,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma.

He hopes to publicly announce the proposal this morning. Both the House and Senate would have to approve the fix.

The news came after leaders spent most of the day in private meetings. Gov. Mike Pence and his chief of staff were in some of the meetings, as were major business leaders.

Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, are trying to find a delicate balance between appeasing business leaders and officials concerned about boycotts, as well as conservative lawmakers and supporters who don’t want the law watered down.

A provision that’s under consideration was given to the Journal Gazette by a person involved in the discussions.

It says the new law does not “authorize a provider to refuse to offer or provide its services, facilities, use of public accommodations, or goods to any member of members of the general public on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or United States military Service.”

It also does not “establish a defense to a civil action or criminal prosecution for refusal by a provider to offer or provide its services, facilities, use of public accommodations, or goods to any member or members of the general public on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or United States military Service; or negate any rights available under the Constitution of the State of Indiana.”

Indiana Chamber of Commerce President Kevin Brinegar said the issue of gender identity was hanging up some lawmakers.

That term refers to a person’s sense of their own gender, regardless of their gender at birth.

“There are some words, I’m not clear if they are in or out,” Brinegar said. “That would make a big difference. I’m encouraged that it is trying to make a definitive statement that this new law cannot in any way be used to discriminate against any group.”

Senate Bill 101 was signed into law last week by Pence but doesn’t go into effect until July 1.

It requires that judges apply a high level of scrutiny when deciding disputes between religious freedom and government rules and regulations. The federal government and 19 other states have similar laws, though not as broad.

But opponents fear businesses will use the law to refuse service to gays and lesbians.

Even if a measure is passed saying the Religious Freedom Restoration Act can’t be used as a legal defense or justification to deny service, that’s not the same as saying it’s illegal to deny service.

State law doesn’t include protections for sexual orientation, so discrimination can already happen in most of the state. A handful of cities, including Fort Wayne, have local ordinances providing protection for gays and lesbians.

But in any case, LGBT supporters are pushing for a full repeal of the law.

Brinegar said there might be enough votes to do so, but the question was whether those supporting the law would show up to give the chambers a quorum to operate. A bill passes with a simple majority of votes – 51 in the House and 26 in the Senate. But a quorum requires two-thirds.

Bosma said, “I think repeal is a mistake. It infers there is something wrong with the RFRA law, and I don’t think there is. We did start this session with that bill – to strengthen religious freedom – and we all think that’s the right thing.

“The question is removing the specter that’s been raised of discrimination of denial of service. That’s what we’re focusing on.”

The morning started with Long and Bosma in a meeting with Pence for about 30 minutes, but no deal or compromise was struck.

When they emerged, they both met with their GOP caucuses separately for several hours – delaying some legislative business scheduled.

When those meetings broke up – again with no agreement in place – Bosma and Long shuttered themselves back in the speaker’s office, where some key business leaders came for a meeting.

The major player was Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Company, which is composed of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Clabber Girl, INDYCAR and more.

They met for about an hour before the business group, including the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, left.

Pence Chief of Staff Jim Atterholt then came to Bosma’s office to meet with him and Long. Atterholt spent about almost an hour before leaving.

That’s when Republicans went back to have respective caucus meetings for several more hours. The House GOP members were mostly smiles when breaking up around 7:30 p.m.

nkelly@jg.net