April 2, 2015 at 3:53 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Proposed fix to Ind. religious freedom law deemed ‘insufficient’
Indiana State House, gay news, Washington Blade

The Indiana Legislature’s proposed fix to the religious freedom law is earning lackluster reviews. (Photo by Jason82; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Following Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s pledge to “fix” his state’s newly enacted religious freedom law, lawmakers in the Hoosier State have proposed a clarification of the law that is designed to ensure it doesn’t allow discrimination — but LGBT advocates say more is needed.

The new language, which was drafted by Republicans leaders in the legislature and made public on Thursday, seeks to amend the highly controversial religious freedom law opposed by LGBT advocates as well as business and political leaders across the country

The proposed fix has two main sections. The first part makes clear the law doesn’t authorize businesses to refuse services, public accommodations, employment or housing to members of the general public based on race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or U.S. military service. The second part clarifies the statute doesn’t apply to churches, ministers or non-profit religious organizations.

Jennifer Pizer, national director of Lambda Legal’s Law and Policy Project, said the proposed fix is step toward reducing the threat to LGBT people in Indiana, but is “far less” than what is needed.

“It recognizes there are problems, but does not fix it as LGBT Hoosiers and others urgently need,” Pizer said. “Now that there’s broad public understanding that gay and transgender people in much of Indiana are terribly vulnerable to arbitrary discrimination by businesses, refusal of housing, and being fired just for being who they are — and even Gov. Pence has agreed that that is wrong — that unacceptable situation requires a full solution.”

The recently enacted Indiana law, known as Senate Enrolled Act 101, doesn’t explicitly mention sexual orientation or gender identity, but was seen as a thinly veiled measure to enable discrimination against LGBT people in Indiana. The law prohibits the state government from burdening an individual’s free exercise of religion, including for the purpose of denying services or employment to an LGBT person.

Bridget Cleveland, a Pence spokesperson, said the governor has no comment on the proposed changes to the law at this time because the legislature has yet to vote on them. It’s unclear whether Pence will support the proposal.

“We will not have a comment until the bill reaches the governor,” Cleveland said.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement the proposed changes limit the damage of the controversial law, but LGBT people in Indiana need more.

“After a historic week where hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers and countless more leaders from Silicon Valley to the Brickyard 400 all spoke up to condemn SB 101, one thing is clear: the people of Indiana will never allow their state to be a home to discrimination,” Griffin said. “Though this legislation is certainly a step back from the cliff, this fight is not over until every person in Indiana is fully equal under the law.”

Griffin said the outcry over the religious freedom bill in Indiana underscores the importance of federal protections for LGBT people in public accommodations, employment, housing and other areas.

In addition to the clarifying language proposed by the legislature, LGBT advocates have been seeking explicit statewide protections barring discrimination in Indiana on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

But that might be too tall of an order for Indiana at the present time. Pence said during a Tuesday news conference that explicit LGBT protections are “not on my agenda.” And both chambers of the legislature are controlled by Republicans, which have a history of being hostile towards LGBT rights.

Katie Blair, campaign manager for Freedom Indiana, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, said the proposed fix lessens the potential harm to LGBT people, but the community in Indiana is still vulnerable to discrimination.

“Statewide non-discrimination protections for LGBT Hoosiers still do not exist, meaning discrimination is still legal in most of the state,” Blair said. “Businesses in Indiana, and many other employers looking to do business with our state, have made it clear that the state must pass a statewide nondiscrimination law that protects all Hoosiers from discrimination and ensures that Indiana is seen as a welcoming place to visit and do business.

Bill Oesterle, CEO of the Indianapolis-based Angie’s list, said in a statement to The Huffington Post the changes aren’t enough.

“Our position is that this ‘fix’ is insufficient,” Oesterle said. “There was no repeal of RFRA and no end to discrimination of homosexuals in Indiana. Employers in most of the state of Indiana can fire a person simply for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning. That’s just not right and that’s the real issue here. Our employees deserve to live, work and travel with open accommodations in any part of the state.“

Oesterle, who previously was a staffer to former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), is among the business leaders who’s criticized the law and canceled a $40 million headquarters expansion in response to the measure.

UPDATE: The Indiana House passed the proposal by a 66-30 vote Thursday afternoon, according to the Indianapolis Star. Democrats reportedly were kicked out of a committee that was deciding on a potential change before a decision was made. The measure nows heads to the Senate.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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