Michelle Quinn, Indiana’s proposed new religious freedom plan draws ire, Chicago Tribune

While downstate Indiana lawmakers seek to reopen the discussion on civil rights and religious freedom, local municipal leaders aren’t happy with some of the proposed changes.

Senate Republicans recently detailed a plan that would extend civil rights to include people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Business groups and other supporters, for example, would like to see housing and public accommodations made for those groups.

It would also, however, leave religious or religious-affiliated groups — such as private schools, adoption agencies, social service and charitable service agencies — exempt from abiding by any protections offered. It also would prohibit the state from taking any action against those groups that don’t abide by the protections. The state could not evoke tax exemptions, deny tax deductions, withhold grants or contracts, or deny accreditation or licenses, under the plan.

Additionally, the proposal allows small businesses with fewer than four full-time employees to refuse providing marriage-related services or goods on religious grounds, and transgender people would have to prove they’d had at least 12 months of medical care and actively lived as the sex to which they identify before they could use a coinciding restroom or dressing room, or file a complaint to the Indiana Human Rights Commission.

And any person identifying as LGBT who files a “frivolous” complaint to the Indiana Human Rights Commission would be fined $1,000, under the proposal.

GOP bill on Indiana LGBT rights has religious exemptions
GOP bill on Indiana LGBT rights has religious exemptions
Protections that 20 municipalities have carved out for the LGBT community, meanwhile, would be superseded, a point over which the Lake County Council expressed disbelief. That council passed an LGBT protection ordinance in May.

“Wow, I think it’s unfortunate,” said Lake County Councilman Jamal Washington, D-Merrillville. “They’re taking away power from local government, and (after the Religious Freedom bill debacle in the spring), I think it’s ridiculous they’re even discussing it at all.”

Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott Jr., whose city passed LGBT protections in April, chuckled at the State Senate’s “hypocrisy.”

“You know, all of (Statehouse Republicans) denounce unfunded mandates and decrees coming from Washington (D.C.) all the time. They’re Federalists who yell, ‘Leave us alone!'” McDermott said. “But they have no problem dictating to us what (Indiana’s municipalities) can and can’t do.

“If Obama sent something like this down the pike, our legislators would be howling to leave it to the states,” he said. “It’s insane.”

Town of Griffith Council President Rick Ryfa, a Republican, said he read the proposal and found it to be a “good start.” The town adopted a policy in 2014, when the administration rewrote its employee handbook.

But he stopped short of throwing it his full support.

Religious leaders: Add sexual orientation, gender identity to the Ind. civil rights code
Religious leaders: Add sexual orientation, gender identity to the Ind. civil rights code
“I feel that the proposed legislation should not affect our policy. We adopted this before any of the recent fanfare started downstate and believe it should stay intact regardless of the outcome of the next legislative session,” Ryfa said. “But I think the GA should be very considerate of home rule provided local ordinances are not in conflict with constitutional or federal law.”

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma has called for a discussion about LGBT civil rights, but noted that “doing nothing is always an option” with regard to the proposal. Democrats said the measure needs to be carefully studied so that it can be determined what exactly it does — and doesn’t — do.

Democrats and gay rights advocates have been pushing for greater LGBT protections since the national uproar last spring over Indiana’s religious objections law. Michigan City is the only other Northwest Indiana municipality to adopt LGBT protections; the Town of Munster has so far refused, deferring to the state.

Washington said he hoped this latest push will get Hoosiers thinking about who’s running the Statehouse.

“Next year, we need to let the people’s voices be heard and let our legislators know they can’t keep running roughshod over human rights,” he said.

The South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority board plans to remain neutral in the battle beginning to brew in Indianapolis over the state’s anti-discrimination law.

Board members recently voted to remain apolitical in the debate over religious freedom and the protections against discrimination for the LGBT community after a request for support from the newly formed lobbying group Indiana Competes.

Indiana Competes is a business group formed to lobby for extending Indiana’s civil rights protections barring discrimination to include members of the LGBT communities. One of the partners in the groups is the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce.
After the Legislature in March approved the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the state’s business community took a hit with some businesses stopping investment in the state like Angie’s List, which scrapped a planned expansion, and some conventions threatening to pull their business.

Vic DeMeyer, chairman of the board, said the board would continue its work without taking a position on what is a political debate and staff would remain neutral on the issue when talking with the media.

“We want to draw business here. That’s what our job is. That is what we will keep doing,” DeMeyer said.

Speros Batistatos, president and CEO of the tourism bureau, said he received an email from Elizabeth Marino with the Lake and Porter county chapter of the group seeking the South Shore CVA’s support that includes signing the group’s online pledge and sharing the bureau’s logo for marketing.

He described the issue as a political fight that has no bearing on how the tourism bureau conducts its operations.

The hospitality industry has always been a safe haven for diversity of all kind in both employment and ownership, he said, adding he knows of no local business owner in the industry who would turn away a potential customer for any reason.

“We are here to serve everyone,” Batistatos said. “For us to weigh in on this, we do not have a dog in this fight.”

Proposed new religious freedom plan draws local ire – Post-Tribune