As advocates firm up plans to push for statewide nondiscrimination laws regarding sexual orientation and gender identity, will they be able to all stay on the same message?
Separate coalitions are forming to represent distinct interests — the newest being Indiana Competes, announced Wednesday, which will make the business case for adding civil rights protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers. One of its key organizers is the Indy Chamber and its early members include Indianapolis-headquartered pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co.
That adds to the support for such legislation from Freedom Indiana, a grass-roots group, and Tech for Equality, a coalition of tech sector leadership backed by the political punch of founder and ex-Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle.
But will having distinct groups split their influence, or will it amplify their advocacy? How will their message be perceived, particularly when advocates for LGBT rights are up against a tightly unified opposition of social and religious conservatives?
Indiana Competes, organizers say, sees the antidiscrimination measure as an economic issue, not a social one.
“Businesses have made and will continue to make a very clear statement that we don’t support discriminating against anyone here in the state of Indiana,” said Peter Hanscom, a former deputy campaign manager for Freedom Indiana who is now managing the chamber’s new business initiative.
Like Freedom Indiana, Tech for Equality and powerful business interests such as Lilly, Columbus, Ind.-based diesel-engine maker Cummins and the NCAA, Indiana Competes wants the General Assembly to adopt what’s becoming known as “full protections” — the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in the areas of housing, employment and public accommodations.
“Big names” will be part of the Indiana Competes effort, Hanscom said, and more details will be rolled out in the coming month. Its first members include Silver in the City, a Downtown Indianapolis boutique, and Robert Goodman Jewelers in Zionsville, according to the group’s website.
Hanscom said businesses have committed funds to help get the effort started, though he declined to name financial backers on Wednesday.
Last week, the influential Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which represents businesses statewide, announced its support for an expansion of LGBT protections. But that voice is, so far, missing from the influence of Indiana Competes.
“We prefer to speak for ourselves,” said Indiana Chamber president Kevin Brinegar. “We’ll advocate our position and do it parallel to any other organization’s.”
The Indiana Chamber’s reasons for supporting sexual orientation and gender identity protections align with the same economic argument as Indiana Competes — that the expansion of the civil rights law would be necessary to keep Indiana competitive in the recruitment, attraction and retention of talent.
While Brinegar said it could still be possible for the chamber to decide to join Indiana Competes later, he said one hazard of any coalition is having the group take a public position “that doesn’t say things the way you want to say them.”
When asked whether the Indiana Chamber would support the “full protections” concept, Brinegar said the chamber was waiting to see proposed legislation before committing its support.
Having a broad spectrum of supporters may make the issue “harder to ignore” for lawmakers, said Paul Helmke, an Indiana University public policy professor.
But he added a hitch: “As long as the message isn’t inconsistent.”
On the other side, those opposing adding sexual orientation and gender identity to state civil rights law appear to be lining up together.
Several groups, for example, are promoting a prayer and rally planned Tuesday for Organization Day at the Statehouse. Many of them are the conservative lobbying groups who supported the original Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“We’re all on the same page,” said Ron Johnson, executive director of the Indiana Pastors Alliance. “The momentum is building. A lot of people are concerned.”
His group and others contend that expanding antidiscrimination protections would create special rights for LGBT people, while discriminating against people of faith who oppose same-sex marriage.
Johnson said sexual orientation and gender identity should not be treated the same as characteristics such as race and sex.
He called the economic argument for supporting LGBT rights “simply ludicrous and unfounded.”
“That is absolutely nonsense. That’s laughable,” Johnson said.
He said employers still hire and welcome all people, labeling LGBT discrimination a “non-issue” and pointing to Indiana’s improving economy as proof.
While the two sides have amped up their bases over the past year, they’re expected to meet in opposing rallies at Tuesday’s Organization Day, which is the ceremonial start to the session. Lawmakers are expected to discuss the issue during the 2016 legislative session when they return in January.