INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Mike Pence has signed a bill supporters say will “fix” Indiana’s divisive Religious Freedom Restoration Act – but it stops short of banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Pence signed the new language behind closed doors after he said he prayed “earnestly for wisdom and compassion.” He said in statement he believes “resolving this controversy and making clear that every person feels welcome and respected in our state is best for Indiana.”
Pence made Senate Bill 50 law shortly after it passed the Republican-controlled House and Senate on Thursday afternoon – largely along party lines.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said the governor was “actively” involved in the creation of the language, which is largely a compromise only among some Republicans and business leaders.
It says that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is not authorization to refuse service, housing, products or jobs to someone based on sexual orientation. It also says that RFRA can’t be used as a defense in a discrimination lawsuit or a prosecution.
However, it exempts churches, religious schools and ministers from those provisions. And it does not actually add sexual orientation to the state’s civil rights law, which bans discrimination based on race or religion.
Pence called for the additional legislation earlier this week to help deal with what he called RFRA’s “misperception.” He wanted the new bill on his desk by the end of the week.
Pence has said the bill is not about discrimination and blamed the media for misleading the public. He said it simply raises the judicial standard under which the government is accused of intruding upon the religious liberty of Hoosiers.
But critics from across the nation – including business leaders, some elected officials, and advocates for gay rights – say it will lead to discrimination in Indiana. The law has led some state and local governments to cancel taxpayer-funded trips to the state, resulted in companies and organizations pulling or threatening to pull their events and their business from Indiana, and sent economic officials scrambling to try to mitigate the damage.
Democrats have pushed Republicans to completely repeal RFRA – and they voted against SB 50 on Thursday because they don’t think it goes far enough. But GOP leaders say a repeal is not an option they’re going to consider.
“That would send the exact wrong message,” Senate President Pro Tem David Long said.
Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, who was named to the conference committee that considered SB 50, said she thinks the best course of action would be to repeal RFRA and write a new bill.
Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, echoed Lawson’s sentiments.
“I resent what we are being forced to do,” Delph said. “I feel like we have a gun to our head — do it or pull the trigger. And it’s wrong.”
Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said that he could be OK with RFRA – but only if LGBT Hoosiers were added as a protected class in the Indiana Civil Rights Act.
Bosma said during a morning press conference that it was too late in the legislative session to consider adding an amendment to the Civil Rights Act, even though lawmakers whipped SB 50 together in just days.
Long said anti-discrimination is “probably likely” next year – although that’s an election year when lawmakers regularly seek to avoid especially controversial legislation.
Several business leaders – including those representing Eli Lilly & Co., the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Cummins, Anthem, Dow AgroSciences and Indiana University Health – backed the “fix.”
But Bill Oesterle, CEO of Angie’s List, said the legislation is insufficient.
“Employers in most of the state of Indiana can fire a person simply for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning,” Oesterle said in a statement. “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."
Democrats also expressed concerns with the quick turn around of SB 50, but Long said swift action is necessary to help repair the state’s reputation.
“In your heart of hearts you know why we’re doing this,” Long said. “Because damage has been done to our state.”
Some Republicans also said they’re worried passing SB 50 in one day would do more harm than good.
“(This is) something that would normally take years to work all of the legal and societal ramifications through, and we’re going to try to do that in a matter of hours,” Sen. Brent Waltz, R-Greenwood, said. “And I don’t believe that’s necessarily in the best interest of my district, or in the best interest of my state.”
Both Delph and Waltz voted no on SB 50.
Similar to the Senate Democrats and Republicans who opposed SB 50, several House Democrats expressed their angst about how the “fix” would further damage Indiana’s reputation and economy.
Rep. Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend claimed that the situation has taken a state with a solid reputation and “turned it into turmoil.”
Addressing fears about the stability of Indiana’s economy, Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, asked why she hadn’t yet “heard much about the economic damage that’s been done.”
Indiana has so far lost an estimated $3.5 billion due to loss of customers, support from businesses, and tourists.
“You can say Indian’s a welcoming place all you want, but if families are starting to suffer economically, and believe me, they already are, how are we going to repair the damage,” said Austin.
Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis posed a question to Bosma, asking if he would commit to working towards adding the LGBT community to the protected class in the next session.
Bosma said that he would make no immediate commitments.
The bill passed the House 66-30 and the Senate 34-16.
Olivia Covington is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.