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Indiana GOP Working to Clarify 'Religious Freedom' Law

Republican leaders in the Indiana General Assembly said Monday they are looking at options to clarify the state's controversial religious freedom law, though they don't believe the law would allow discrimination against gays and lesbians as opponents fear.

By Tony Cook and Tom LoBianco

Republican leaders in the Indiana General Assembly said Monday they are looking at options to clarify the state's controversial religious freedom law, though they don't believe the law would allow discrimination against gays and lesbians as opponents fear.

House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long made their comments at a Statehouse news conference to address a national firestorm over the law that has prompted some convention organizers, businesses, and entertainers to stall events or planned expansions in the state over concerns about discrimination.

"To the extent that we need to clarify through legislative action that this law does not and will not be allowed to discriminate against anyone, we will do just that," Long said.

But what exactly they will propose remains unclear. They said they are in talks with the governor's office about potential clarifying language and that a repeal of the bill is unlikely.

But after several hours of private meetings with their fellow Republican lawmakers Monday afternoon, there seemed to be little consensus about how to proceed.

The ACLU of Indiana and an anti-RFRA coalition, Freedom Indiana, laid out the specifics on Monday for how they would like to change Indiana's RFRA:

--Updating the state's civil rights law to prohibit discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers in employment, housing and public accommodations.

--Clarifying that RFRA can't be used to undermine local or statewide civil rights protections.

The nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil rights group, Human Rights Campaign, also outlined similar demands. It wants to see language added to the RFRA "that explicitly says that these laws cannot be used to undermine civil rights laws at the state or local level," said Sarah Warbelow, the group's legal director.

But for the Republican-controlled General Assembly, those options come with some political land mines.

If they add statewide protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, they could run into problems with Gov. Mike Pence, who has said such a provision is not on his agenda.

And if they add language to prevent the law from being used to overturn local human rights ordinances in about a dozen Indiana cities that protect gays and lesbians from discrimination, they would face criticism from Democrats who in recent weeks have proposed amendments to do just that, only to be shot down by Republicans.

Bosma mentioned one other possibility at the new conference. "The removal of the specter of RFRA being a defense to a claim that services were denied may be one approach," he said.

Ultimately, though, Bosma and Long said any proposal would have to be vetted by Republicans in both the House and Senate.

They held their news conference just 24 hours after Gov. Mike Pence appeared on ABC's "This Week." Host George Stephanopoulos asked Pence six times whether the new law would allow a business to discriminate against gay couples. Pence ducked the question each time, saying only that he believes in protecting the religious freedoms of all Hoosiers.

Bosma said "the fact that he did not answer questions clearly" was part of the reason for Monday's news conference.

"One of the primary reasons Sen. Long and I decided to make a public statement this morning is because there were questions asked this weekend about whether Senate Bill 101 was designed, had the intent or would have the effect of discriminating against gay and lesbian Hoosiers," Bosma said. "The answer is no -- that is not the intent or the design of the bill. The answer is no -- it's not the effect of the bill. And what Sen. Long and I are here to state is to the extent that might be the effect of the bill we're prepared to encourage our legislative colleagues to take immediate action to clarify that in every way."

Bosma went on to say: "What we had hoped for with the bill was a message of inclusion -- inclusion of all religious beliefs. What instead has come out is a message of exclusion. And that was not the intent and hopefully not the effect, but to the extent it is, we are intent on righting that."

But even as they announced plans to clarify the law, Bosma and Long defended it in its current form.

"At no time in the history of this law has it ever been allowed to discriminate against anyone," Long said.

Under Senate Enrolled Act 101, signed by Pence in a private Statehouse ceremony Thursday morning, the state and local governments are prohibited from substantially burdening a person's ability to exercise his or her religion -- unless the government can show that it has a compelling interest and that the action is the least restrictive means of achieving it.

The bill, which goes into effect July 1, does not mention sexual orientation, but opponents fear it could allow business owners to deny services to gays and lesbians for religious reasons.

With the signing, Indiana became the 20th state in the nation to adopt such legislation. It is modeled on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which President Bill Clinton signed in 1993.

But Indiana's proposal was met with swift and harsh criticism.

The mayors of San Francisco and Seattle have banned all city-funded trips to Indiana. The governor of Connecticut joined them on Monday. founder and CEO Marc Benioff announced on Twitter that the company would no longer send employees or customers to Indiana. And Angie's List CEO Bill Oesterle said he will cancel the company's plans for a $40 million expansion of its Eastside headquarters because of his opposition to RFRA.

The organizers of several major conventions -- including Gen Con, the city's largest -- have threatened to take their events elsewhere.

AFSCME, which represents public employees, announced Monday it's moving its October conference for women out of Indianapolis, making it the first convention to pull out of the city because of objections to the religious freedom law.

"This un-American law, allowing businesses to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers, sets Indiana and our nation back decades in the struggle for civil rights," AFSCME President Lee Saunders said in a statement.

The three-day conference, set for the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown, usually draws 700 to 900 attendees A new location hasn't been disclosed.

"The fact is we've been embarrassed before the nation," House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said in response to Monday's GOP news conference.

He and Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, called for immediate repeal of the measure, and for a new state law that would protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

But after meeting with his fellow Republicans for several hours on Monday, Long said the prospect of getting rid of the law was "unrealistic."

"Repealing the bill is not going to happen," Long said, adding, "We'll be talking some more into the night."

The governor, in the meantime, declined interviews on Monday. He also canceled public appearances Monday night and Tuesday.

Pence also had travel plans for the upcoming Easter weekend, but his spokeswoman, Kara Brooks, said those plans are "up in the air right now due to everything that's going on."

(c)2015 The Indianapolis Star

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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