INDIANAPOLIS – Sen. Travis Holdman is either a hero, an idiot or a coward.
Those are just a few of the colorful descriptions cast his way in recent months as he tried to bridge the gap between religious liberty and gay rights.
That effort failed last week, and Holdman doubts he will be back for round two in 2017.
But he doesn’t regret inserting himself into the clash – an evangelical Christian who met his wife at church camp and attended seminary before choosing missionary work instead.
"Don’t dance, don’t chew. Don’t go with women who do," the Republican from Markle said of his conservative upbringing and commitment to Jesus Christ at age 11.
So how did this faithful man find himself pushing civil rights protections for gay, lesbian and transgender Hoosiers? After last year’s religious freedom bill blew up into a debate on discrimination, he and his wife talked about carrying the bill this year.
"As people of faith, we thought it was the right thing to do," Holdman said. "We are called to live at peace with people. We are never going to be a force in their life unless we are tolerant."
Holdman felt a calling to serve as a youth, and enrolled in seminary after college to prepare himself for a role in the ministry. But after 18 months, he became frustrated with the faculty having a more liberal point of view than his. So he explored another path – which led him to missionary work in Haiti in his 20s.
He and his wife, Becky, spent six months building youth groups and youth programs in churches there. Holdman learned the language and also found himself providing medical care. One day – with no experience – he immunized 400 children.
Holdman has been back to Haiti six times – the most recent a year ago in November with a group from his church to build a house. He also has been to Ghana six times to provide leadership training.
Over the years, he became a lawyer, banker and now owns a consulting firm. Holdman has represented District 19 in the Indiana Senate since 2008 and before that was a member of the Wells County Council.
He grew up in Missouri but settled in Indiana because that’s where his wife is from. He has been a member of his church since 1975. He leads worship every third Sunday and over the years has taught Sunday School, led the choir and handled the church finances.
Senate President Pro Tem David Long and Holdman met over the summer and decided they needed to get in front of the issue this year, instead of being reactive.
Indiana law doesn’t allow discrimination on housing, employment and public accommodations for reasons of race, gender or national origin, for instance. But sexual orientation and gender identity aren’t covered – meaning businesses can refuse to serve gay and transgender Hoosiers, fire them for being gay or refuse to rent or sell a home or apartment.
The problem arises because some Christian business owners want the right to refuse services related to gay marriage, which they don’t believe in.
So Holdman crafted a bill with wide religious exemptions. Group after group met with him to make sure they would be covered. But it was never enough.
Ironically, he said, he never spoke – in person, email or phone – with the major organizations fighting the bill.
"I don’t like to call them the religious right, because some of their tactics are not necessarily Christian," he said of vitriol posted on social media.
Holdman said there are some who are very sincere, but others refuse to consider any middle ground and have used the issue and Holdman to raise money.
"The thing that has been the most disconcerting is that I have considered myself to be a conservative evangelical Christian. I identify with those groups, but they have said very hateful things about me," he said. "It has been taxing on me emotionally from a faith standpoint. When people say ‘everybody pray to kill this bill,’ I thought I was praying to keep the bill alive."
Messages left for several of the more outspoken groups were not returned.
Long praised Holdman for his efforts and the grace with which he handled the pressure.
"He’s gone through a tough process here, and I admire him for it. He’s an evangelical Christian. An elder in his church. And he’s taken a lot of slurs from a lot of people who oppose what he was trying to do – on both sides," he said.
In northeast Indiana, Holdman’s church family was more supportive. He remembers one recent Sunday class he was teaching where those attending asked him to explain the bill. After 45 minutes, they came away much clearer on its merits and promised to pray for him.
When push came to shove, though, Holdman could not get his caucus to support a bill protecting transgender people. The issue became entwined with a national debate over restroom and shower use by transgender people in public areas.
That meant moving forward with sexual orientation protections and further studying the transgender issue.
And that, of course, displeased the business and grassroots groups pushing LGBT equality.
"He did a good job. It was a respectful conversation," Chris Paulsen said of Holdman. She is the campaign manager for the equality group Freedom Indiana.
"He was very apologetic and kind and disappointed. I thought it was good to have someone with a religious background," Paulsen said. "It was a big risk to him obviously, but I think it made it more valid for the conservatives to see that he felt there should not be discrimination."
Holdman said he only slightly regretted inserting himself in the middle of the battle on Tuesday when it all fell apart.
"My wife says I’m not doing it again. She can’t stand seeing the bad things online," he said. "I told her I was sorry for bringing it on us, and she said it was the right thing to do."