Indiana lawmakers approve changes to religious freedom law

Posted at 4:38 PM, Apr 02, 2015
and last updated 2015-04-02 16:38:08-04

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Indiana’s social conservatives wanted a law that insulated them from the gay rights movement. Instead, the state is now on on the verge of enacting protections based on sexual orientation for the first time in its history.

Top Indiana Republican lawmakers overhauled their week-old religious freedom law Thursday with a follow-up measure intended to ease concerns driven by businesses that it could lead to discrimination.

They appear to have tamped down some of the criticism — but in doing so they’ve infuriated social conservative activists, and they’ve set the stage for a bigger fight next year over expanding Indiana’s anti-discrimination law to cover gays and lesbians.

Republican legislative leaders unveiled a series of changes Thursday morning to the law that triggered intense backlash from businesses, sports associations, pro-LGBT groups and even fiscally-focused conservatives when Gov. Mike Pence signed it last week.

The GOP-dominated House and Senate approved a legislative fix, which was added into an unrelated bill, on Thursday, sending it to Pence’s desk almost immediately.

Pence hasn’t yet said whether he’ll sign the fix into law — and conservative groups like Indiana Right to Life are urging him to veto it, despite the measure’s strong Republican support in the legislature. But GOP legislative leaders have signaled it’s unlikely Pence will veto it.

The changes would prohibit businesses from using the law as a defense in court for refusing “to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodations, goods, employment, or housing” to any customers based on “race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or United States military service.”

It doesn’t accomplish what the law’s critics wanted most: Adding sexual orientation to the list of categories protected by Indiana’s anti-discrimination law.

But that debate, GOP legislators acknowledged, is coming soon. House Speaker Brian Bosma said the backlash against the religious freedom law has “opened many perspectives” and that the anti-discrimination law “needs to be discussed.”

The religious freedom debate has touched a particularly raw nerve in Indiana, where a GOP push to amend the state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage and civil unions was defeated last year — exposing tensions within Republican caucuses that already have more than two-thirds super majorities in both the Indiana House and Senate.

Several Indiana cities already have anti-discrimination laws that include sexual orientation, but the legislative fix to the religious freedom law will be the first time protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity are recognized statewide.

Social conservatives lambasted lawmakers for walking away from what they saw as a crucial protection for Christian businesses that did not want to provide services to gays and lesbians — particularly for same-sex weddings.

Eric Miller, the head of Advance America and a powerful lobbyist who stood behind Pence at last week’s private bill signing ceremony, said on his website: “Among the things that will happen, Christian bakers, florists and photographers would now be forced by the government to participate in a homosexual wedding or else they would be punished by the government! That’s not right!”

Nationally, social conservatives expressed similar objections. Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, tweeted: “This Indiana “compromise” is a train wreck. It should be voted down.”

Still, lawmakers said they had to do something.

“What was intended as a message of inclusion was interpreted as a message of exclusion, especially for the LGBT community,” Bosma said Thursday morning. “Nothing could have been further from the truth, but it was clear the perception had to be addressed.”

The Indiana law and a similar bill that Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has asked lawmakers there to change had drawn criticism from major companies like Apple, Walmart and Salesforce, as well as sports associations like the NCAA, NBA and NFL.

Katie Blair, the head of Freedom Indiana, a group that lobbies against anti-LGBT measures and is funded by several of Indiana’s largest businesses, said the changes announced Thursday “represent a step in the right direction.”

“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,” Blair said.

Even as they moved to fix the law they’d passed, though, Indiana Republicans maintained that nothing had really been wrong with it in the first place.

“It was misinterpreted,” Bosma said. “But all we can say is we are sorry that misinterpretation hurt so many people.”