INDIANAPOLIS - GOP leaders on Thursday outlined a legislative fix that would neutralize a key criticism of Indiana's new religious freedom law by explicitly stating it doesn't authorize businesses to refuse services to gays, lesbians and other Hoosiers.
But the new language doesn't prohibit discrimination on a broad basis since Indiana law still doesn't recognize sexual orientation as a protected class similar to race and gender.
"Hopefully this will put an end to the greatest misperception of all that people of Indiana discriminate," said Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne. "Nothing could be further from the truth. Hoosier hospitality isn't just a saying. It's a way of life here."
The announcement capped nearly a week's worth of negotiation to clarify the bill between business leaders and officials concerned about boycotts and conservative lawmakers and supporters who don't want the law watered down.
Freedom Indiana - a statewide grass-roots group against the religious freedom bill - applauded the change as a step in the right direction but warned the fight is not over.
"Today, the harm has been lessened, but we have not reached the day when LGBT Hoosiers can be assured that they can live their lives with freedom from discrimination," said campaign manager Katie Blair. "It’s long past time to enact a comprehensive nondiscrimination law, and we must continue to work to ensure, once and for all, that the RFRA cannot be used to discriminate against or hurt anyone."
The House and Senate still have to vote to approve the trailing-legislation today, which is contained in Senate Bill 50. Legislative leaders said they have the votes to send the bill to Gov. Mike Pence.
More than a dozen business leaders attended the event, including from the Pacers, Eli Lilly and Salesforce.
"The future of Indiana was at stake," said Bart Peterson, of Eli Lilly and Company.
He applauded those involved with crafting the compromise for valuing "the future above a desire to win; above the need for ideological purity. The healing needs to begin right now."
He also noted that for the first time ever the words "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" will appear in Indiana statute in context of antidiscrimination.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act - Senate Bill 101 was signed into law last week by Gov. Mike Pence but doesn't go into effect until July 1.
It requires 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 feared businesses would use the law to refuse service to gays and lesbians.
The sections that will be added say the new law does not "authorize a provider to refuse to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodations, goods, employment, or housing 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."
It also does not "establish a defense to a civil action or criminal prosecution for refusal by a provider to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodations, goods employment, or housing 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."
In theory, a business could still refuse service but they would not be allowed to use the religious freedom law as a legal defense or justification.
A handful of cities have local ordinances providing protection for gays and lesbians. The proposed fix would appear to work in concert with those local protections.
Both Long and Bosma said the uproar has opened a positive and healthy dialogue on the possibility of making sexual orientation a protected class similar to race and gender.
"This is the beginning of the discussion," he said. "It's a big policy step."