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INDIANAPOLIS — Ever since Indiana drew widespread and mostly negative attention last year for a controversial religious objections law, Republican legislative leaders have sought a way to add LGBT civil rights protections into state law while also carving out exemptions for people with sincerely held religious beliefs.
But the first attempt to do so this legislative session was quickly panned by people on both sides of the issue.
The Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday passed a GOP-sponsored bill that would extend civil rights protections to gay, lesbian and bisexual people and would also repeal most of last year’s law, which critics said would sanction discrimination against gay people.
The measure was immediately excoriated by Democrats and LGBT rights supporters — including Indiana business leaders — for not going far enough because it does nothing help transgender people who are fired from a job, denied service or evicted because of their gender identity. It was also criticized by conservatives who say it could force Christians to work with gay people over their religious objections.
“Please, please, please do not” pass the bills, pleaded Curt Smith, the president of the Indiana Family Institute, who opposes statewide protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Meanwhile, Scott McCorkle, CEO of software company Salesforce Marketing Cloud, invoked the uproar last March over the religious objections law. The bill, McCorkle said, doesn’t do enough to correct widely held views about the state and will “take us back to that dark moment in Indiana history.”
The future of the bill is far from certain. Republican Gov. Mike Pence, has said he will prioritize religious freedom over LGBT rights, and reaction has been split over the impact of the religious objections law on the state’s economy.
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 revenues. That’s against $4.4 billion a year in economic impact such gatherings have yielded in recent years.
But Pence and Evangelical groups question whether the impact was even significant amid signs of an improving economy and low statewide unemployment. Evangelicals also accuse Indiana’s business establishment of using the issue to coerce lawmakers into adopting laws that could compel Christian business owners to provide services to LGBT people against their religious beliefs.
“If you vote for these bills, you will be sending a message to the citizens of Indiana that share my beliefs about marriage that they will not be tolerated,” testified Barronelle Stutzman, a Washington State florist who found herself at the center of storm over gay rights for refusing service to a customer.
The Senate did not take action on another measure that would have extended civil rights protections base on both sexual orientation and gender identity. Republican Senate President David Long, who chaired the committee, did not explain why a vote was not taken on that measure. He didn’t take questions after the hearing.