Michael Conroy / AP

Indiana advances bill to repeal ‘religious objections’ law

Committee approves bill protecting gay, lesbian and bisexual people from discrimination but excludes trans community

Indiana’s controversial "religious objections" law, approved last year, may be repealed after a state Senate committee this week pushed forward a related bill seeking to strike a balance between LGBT rights and religious freedom.

The new bill passed by the state Senate's rules committee would bar discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation on the basis of sexual orientation but would fail to outlaw discrimination on the basis of gender identity, thus excluding from protection the transgender community.

The bill carves out exceptions for small businesses, religious groups, nonprofits with a religious purpose and adoption agencies.

The Republican-led committee also added an amendment to the bill that would repeal the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

That law, passed in March 2015 with the stated aim of protecting the free speech of religious groups, was widely criticized as giving religious groups license to discriminate against or refuse service to members of the LGBT community.

After companies such as Eli Lilly and Angie’s List threatened to pull their business from the state, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, amended the language of the religious objections law in April 2015 to specify that the ordinance could not be used as a legal defense to deny services to LGBT people.

Still, a survey by the tourism booster group Visit Indy — which backs LGBT rights — suggests last year's law may have cost Indianapolis more than $60 million in convention revenue from vendors that boycotted the state.

The new bill advanced by the Indiana Senate on Wednesday has come under similar fire from both LGBT advocacy groups and religious organizations that backed last year's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

"Please, please, please do not" pass the bill, pleaded Curt Smith, the president of the conservative Indiana Family Institute.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Chris Paulsen, the campaign manager for Freedom Indiana, an LGBT advocacy group, said, “It’s not right to leave the transgender community out. We’re moving backwards instead of forwards. We need full [civil rights] protections.”

The Indiana Senate and House must still vote on the bill.

Robert A. Katz, a law professor at Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law, says that the current religious objections law, when paired with the patchwork of human rights ordinances passed by some cities in Indiana, is preferable and will offer better protection to the LGBT community.

“It creates pockets within the state where discrimination is perfectly permissible,” he said of SB344, the new bill. “From the point of view of people who care about LGBT rights, the best thing the Indiana legislature can do is nothing.”

With The Associated Press

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