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  • State Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, presents two bills during a hearing on two bills, one concerning gay and transgender civil rights, the other religious freedom, in front of the Senate Committee on Rules and Legislative Procedure Committee at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016 10:33 pm

Senate panel quashes rights bill

Niki Kelly | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – A legislative attempt to expand Indiana’s religious freedom restoration act to other "fundamental rights" died Wednesday due to bad timing.

The bill threatened to reopen the debate that damaged Indiana’s reputation last year.

Senate Judiciary Chair Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, said the logic and analysis behind Senate Bill 66 on fundamental rights is correct.

"But due to the fact that it has been mischaracterized by some in the room," he said, now is not the time to move the legislation forward.

Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, who wrote the bill, gave a brief statement explaining the bill, but no testimony or vote was taken.

The proposal would have identified six fundamental rights or core values that lawmakers feel should be protected above others by judges in disputes. The legal standard is called strict scrutiny and would make it harder for government to infringe on these rights than the usual standard of a rational basis.

The rights in the bill included the right to worship; the right to free exercise of religious opinions and right of conscience; the right to freedom of religion; the right to freedom of thought and speech; the right to assemble and petition the government; and the right to bear arms.

"A lot of people here think it’s about rights of certain groups of individuals," Young said. "I’m protecting every one of your rights."

He said people don’t understand the bill or "like to demagogue or fear monger."

Opponents saw it as another avenue toward discrimination, especially against gay Hoosiers not protected by state civil rights law.

The bill also would have repealed last year’s "fix" to the religious freedom restoration act, which said that law couldn’t be used to authorize or defend refusal of service, employment or housing to anyone.

Peter Hanscom, initiative director for the business coalition Indiana Competes, applauded the death of the bill.

"The damage that SB 66 could have caused our state goes beyond what Hoosiers witnessed last spring when the first Religious Freedom Restoration Act was signed into law," he said. "Moving forward, we expect our state’s elected officials to focus their efforts on eliminating legal discrimination, not enabling it."

Curt Smith, of the Indiana Family Institute, said he was surprised Republican leadership quashed the bill.

"Senator Young’s bill has a lot to offer. It really does take our founding freedoms and give them extra protections," he said. "I think there is a healthy and vigorous conversation within the Republican caucus."

Smith speculated that Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, preferred to focus on legislation expanding civil rights protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers.

nkelly@jg.net