INDIANAPOLIS – A new proposal from Markle Republican Sen. Travis Holdman would give limited protections to gay, lesbian and bisexual Hoosiers but pass on the thorny debate over transgender issues.
He released Senate Bill 344 Thursday – another option for the Republican-led Senate to consider in the debate about whether to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state civil rights code.
Previously he wrote Senate Bill 100, which was released in November. Both will likely be heard in committee.
Holdman said the transgender issue has become a dividing line for some lawmakers who might otherwise support some movement forward on protections.
"Folks understand the gay issue. They understand the lesbian issue. They understand the bisexual issue. The transgendered piece is just different enough," he said. "I think it takes away some of the angst folks were having because they just don’t understand the issue."
Conservative family groups in Indiana have "kind of pulled the fire alarm" by pushing a narrative about molestation and rape involving bathroom and shower usage in public places.
"We’re not going there," Holdman said. "Let’s back away from this."
Under the new bill, lawmakers will study issues surrounding transgender protections in a summer study committee.
Several groups pushing civil rights protections for the entire LGBT community reacted negatively to the proposal.
"Gay and transgender people should not be subjected to legal discrimination in our state. The civil rights law should be updated to reflect that commitment and make it clear that we are an open, welcoming place to live, work and play," said a statement from Freedom Indiana. "The more lawmakers try to dance around the need for real, clear LGBT protections, the more it looks like they want a way to maintain the status quo: A state where you can be fired, denied housing or turned away from public places because of who you are or whom you love."
A business group, Indiana Competes, also opposed the bill.
Senate Democrat Leader Tim Lanane of Anderson said Hoosiers expect lawmakers to ensure Indiana is open for business to all of its citizens.
"To restore Indiana’s reputation as a welcoming state, that message must expressly outlaw discrimination," he said. "You cannot compromise on equal rights. Just a little bit of discrimination, as proposed in Senate Bill 100, will not suffice. Allowing even more discrimination, as SB 344 permits, is derailing the conversation on equal rights."
Indiana law doesn’t provide anti-discrimination protections for sexual orientation or gender identity the way it does for other classes such as gender, race and national origin.
That means in much of the state, landlords, employers and businesses can freely discriminate against gays. There are more than a dozen cities – including Fort Wayne – with local protections, though they vary in scope and enforcement.
The rest of Holdman’s new bill is similar to his original. It carves out cases in which small businesses – those with fewer than six employees – can legally refuse to provide services related to the solemnization, rehearsal, reception, celebration or social event for a marriage ceremony, renewal of marriage vows or marriage anniversary.
Holdman said this is a way to recognize Indiana’s strong freedom of conscience and religious liberty protections.
Indiana’s Constitution specifically says "No law shall, in any case whatever, control the free exercise and enjoyment of religious opinions, or interfere with the rights of conscience."
But many people see it as legalizing discrimination.
"It’s really finding that fair balance and it’s not an easy answer," Holdman said. " ‘It looks like discrimination.’ To me it looks like an exemption. Whatever word you want to use but at the same time I think we are just trying to be fair-minded."
One big change to the bill would be to leave in place any local human rights ordinances passed by municipalities before Jan. 1, 2016. The initial bill would have voided all of them – something that upset those pushing for protections.
House Democrat Leader Scott Pelath of Michigan City said the games being played with the bill on sexual orientation and transgender issues are just silly.
"Either you accept things as a condition of birth or you don’t," he said. "If they don’t accept it as a condition of birth then they ought to say it and then listen to the criticism that comes along with it."