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By Stephanie Wang
A new IndyStar poll, conducted with Ball State University, shows Hoosiers support expanding the state civil rights law to include sexual orientation and gender identity, with 50.2 percent in favor and 35.1 percent opposed.
Support jumped to about 70 percent when questions were not framed around the term “civil rights,” but instead broke down the specific protections that would be provided to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people under a bill pending in the Indiana General Assembly. The proposal applies to housing, employment, retail businesses and public services.
“When you ask something in the abstract, people aren’t quite sure what that means,” said Joseph Losco, director of Ball State’s Bowen Center for Public Affairs. “But when you apply it and give specific examples, then it becomes much more clear to them. When people know exactly what that means – it’s providing legal protections to people – that makes it more concrete, more tangible.”
Through the specific examples on how the law would work, the findings of the Star poll show the largest amount of public support reported on this issue. It is also the first poll to gauge opinions on the proposed legislation, known as Senate Bill 100, brought forward by Senate Republicans to offer statewide legal protections for LGBT people, with exemptions for religious organizations and small wedding-service businesses.
The IndyStar poll with Ball State’s Bowen Center surveyed 600 adults living in Indiana. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.2 percentage points. The statewide survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International and analyzed by the Bowen Center.
Results show significant support — amid ongoing tensions — for the legislation.
“There’s a place for compromise and collaboration between the two extremes,” said Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, who authored SB100. “But there will be people who will never be satisfied with granting protected class status to the LGBT community, and folks who want the extension granted but want no liberties in religious issues.”
“I’m not sure you’re ever going to get the extremes on both ends to come to agreement,” Holdman added. “Hopefully, the majority of the people in the middle will come to agreement.”
What’s likely to become a focal point in the debate is the part of the proposal that exempts small wedding-services businesses from adhering to the LGBT discrimination protections.
In the Star poll, most people said including the exemption wouldn’t sway them to be more likely to either support or oppose legislation.
For those who said it mattered, just as many people said the exemption would push them toward supporting the legislation as those who said it would make them oppose it.
“It’s really a wash,” Losco explained. “You’re going to lose as many supporters of the bill from these exemptions as you’re going to gain from putting these exemptions in.”
Holdman said he’s heard feedback on both sides — from those who want to broaden the exemptions, and those who want to eliminate them.
He said he expects debate over the size of the wedding-services businesses who qualify for the exemption. It was drafted with a limit of fewer than four employees, but he said some are advocating to increase that to six employees, as other state laws define small businesses, or 15 employees, as some federal laws do. Others say the loophole shouldn’t exist at all.
Conservative advocacy groups are leading the opposition to the legislation. Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana, said giving rights to the LGBT population “comes at the expense of other long established rights granted to all.”
“Thankfully, freedom of religion, conscience and speech are not determined by polling data or public information campaigns, but by the intent of our founders,” he wrote in an email. “Our legal reviews of SB 100 find that it is a serious threat to those cherished freedoms.”
He later added, “I doubt, given some powerful interests and the media’s relentless pushing of this measure, that many Hoosiers understand the problems this bill presents to freedom of religion, speech, association and religious practice.”
The Indianapolis Star editorial board, which is separate from the news-gathering operation, has taken a position in favor of full civil rights protections for LGBT people,
Another part of the poll addresses the economic case that influential business interests are making for implementing LGBT protections. Businesses such as Eli Lilly and Cummins say the civil rights additions are necessary after the Religious Freedom Restoration Act controversy, to correct the perception that Indiana is unwelcoming to diverse populations.
About 53 percent of people didn’t think businesses would be affected if those protections do not pass.
“The economy is still booming, so they don’t see any adverse reactions from that,” Losco said. “It looks like there’s not a major impact.”
However, 36 percent of people said businesses would have a harder time attracting workers and customers without a law shielding LGBT rights.
Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Mark Fisher disputed the finding that the economic argument isn’t resonating with a majority of people. He said companies continue to report difficulties in hiring because of Indiana’s diminished reputation.
He cited a local company that recently joined Indiana Competes, a coalition of businesses advocating for LGBT rights. He said the company, which he did not name, was recruiting in North Carolina when the national firestorm erupted over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — leading recruiters to “no longer talk about where the company was based” with potential new hires.
He also contended that many companies, particularly in the life sciences and technology areas, are purposefully starting up or expanding in communities where local nondiscrimination ordinances already protect LGBT people.
But House Speaker Brian Bosma pointed to that same idea of companies deciding to come to Indiana to make a different point: “That’s because we have a top economic environment in the Midwest and one of the top in the nation,” he said in public comments Wednesday at a legislative conference. “Those who say we’re irrevocably damaged from this, I truly disagree with.”
He also said urban communities where this is an important issue have enacted local laws, while rural areas, “where it’s a less popular motivator,” have chosen not to. “So we are not in a bad position right now,” said Bosma, R-Indianapolis.
Central Indiana residents were the most concerned about the potential negative impact on businesses — perhaps, Losco suggested, because that’s where many of the state’s largest corporations are located.
But that’s not to say LGBT rights is an issue that only affects Central Indiana. The Star poll reported that a majority of people in both the northern and southern parts of the state favored extending civil rights to cover sexual orientation and gender identity. In fact, among the regions, Central Indiana (stretching from Terre Haute to Indianapolis to Richmond) recorded slightly less support for adding the protected classes, because people were more closely split over the issue.
Even in rural areas, more people supported LGBT rights than opposed them, though they were slightly less likely to lean that way than those in urban and suburban areas.
Poll results also show support for LGBT protections is strongest among women and Democrats. Though it continues to be an issue that divides Republicans, as more Republicans support broadening civil rights than oppose it.
Young adults offer the strongest support for LGBT rights, but so, too, does the 55 to 64-year-old demographic.
Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said the poll findings show just how quickly support has grown for equality for LGBT people and adds to that momentum.
Hoosiers, he said, “simply think this is a matter of fairness.”
Overall, the Star poll reflects similar big-picture results from other polls conducted this year.
The annual Hoosier Survey recently showed the divide at 56 percent of Indiana residents supporting LGBT protections with 36 percent opposed. A June poll commissioned by Republican anti-discrimination law supporter Bill Oesterle and conducted by Republican pollster Christine Matthews, showed 54 percent of Hoosiers supported LGBT protections and 32 percent opposed them.
Accounting for margins of error, Losco said the three polls remain in line with each other.
The Indy Chamber released another new statewide poll Wednesday, also conducted by Matthews. The poll showed 73 percent of respondents think it’s already illegal under state law to discriminate against LGBT individuals. It also reported 62 percent support making LGBT discrimination illegal in Indiana.
About the poll
The IndyStar poll, with the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University, surveyed 600 adults living in Indiana via landline or cell phone and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.2 percentage points. The survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International from Nov. 30 to Dec. 9. Princeton Survey Research, founded in 1989, has provided research for the Pew Research Center, NBC News and American Express, among many others. The Bowen Center has provided analysis of statewide polls since 2007.