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Efforts to repeal last year’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act and replace it with new protections for “fundamental rights” came to a screeching halt Wednesday.
The measure, which also would have repealed last year’s so-called RFRA “fix,” failed to advance from a Senate committee after the chairman declared that the “timing is incorrect.”
That decision shifts the focus to this afternoon’s hearing on expanding the state’s civil rights law to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Scores of opponents and supporters had shown up at the 9 a.m. hearing to testify on Senate Bill 66, which would have increased protections for religious freedom, freedom of speech, freedom to assemble and the right to bear arms.
“These rights belong to each and every one of us,” the proposal’s author, Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, said, “and I’m trying to protect every one of those rights for everyone in this room.”
But after allowing Young to explain the bill, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brent Steele, R-Bedford, declined to hear testimony, discuss or vote on the bill because he said it had been “mischaracterized.”
“Sen. Young’s logic is correct, and his legal analysis is correct, and I believe his motive is laudable,” Steele said. “The timing is incorrect. Probably next year would be a chance to have a legal discussion on this, on protecting our constitutional rights.”
Opponents had dubbed the measure “Super RFRA” and feared it was an attempt to sanction discrimination against gay people. They worried it would re-ignite last year’s firestorm over RFRA, which prompted boycott threats, event cancellations and travel bans. Gov. Mike Pence and lawmakers quickly passed a so-called “fix” to prevent the law from being used to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Religious conservatives, however, have advocated for more rigorous protections for religious freedom through RFRA last year and SB 66 this year. They also oppose measures extending LGBT rights because they fear such laws may require them to violate their religious beliefs about same-sex marriage.
At Wednesday’s hearing, one gay rights group printed out 118,000 tweets from last year that included the hashtag BoycottIndiana. The tweets — two per page — took up several boxes and were wheeled in on a cart.
Peter Hanscom of Indiana Competes, a group of businesses seeking a statewide ban on discrimination against LGBT people, said the committee’s decision was a realization by lawmakers that the debate needs to shift to civil rights.
“You don’t need to go backwards and rehash this entire fight again. It makes absolutely no sense,” he said. “Repealing RFRA, repealing the fix, and then re-inserting another RFRA had the capacity and most likely would have incited another nationwide firestorm on our state.”
The decision to shelf SB 66 surprised Curt Smith, president of the Indiana Family Institute, which opposes adding LGBT protections to the state’s civil rights laws.
He said Young’s bill “elevated the conversation” about protecting freedoms, getting beyond last year’s RFRA controversy.
“I think this transcended the original RFRA, and that’s part of the reason I thought it was a novel and fresh idea,” Smith said.