A Victory For Gay Rights In Indiana

After ongoing public outcry, Republican state lawmakers agreed Thursday to amend Indiana’s “religious freedom” law to ensure it does not discriminate against the LGBT community. Critics of the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act protested that the Act, passed into law last Thursday, allowed Indiana businesses to reject gay and lesbian customers in the name of “religious freedom.” Governor Mike Pence has defended the law, but faced increasing pressure from outraged individuals as well as businesses that threatened to boycott the state. The lawmakers' statement Thursday suggests that the “Boycott Indiana” movement has actually worked.

The Act, designed “to prevent laws that substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion,” was hailed as a “road map” to bigotry and greeted with extensive protests outside the Indiana Statehouse when it was signed. Businesses, states, organizations and entertainers swiftly denounced the law and announced their intentions to shun Indiana. In response, the legislators’ proposal — announced at the Statehouse Thursday — would enshrine protections for LGBT customers, employees and tenants, according to USA Today.

“What was intended as a message of inclusion was interpreted as a message of exclusion, especially for the LGBT community,” Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma announced to a crowd of reporters. “Nothing could have been further from the truth, but it was clear the perception had to be addressed.” The amendment, as described by Senate President Pro Tem David Long, will “unequivocably state that Indiana's (religious freedom) law does not and will not be able to discriminate against anyone, anywhere at any time.”

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The hastily put-together compromise stipulates that the RFRA cannot be used as a legal defense to discriminate against customers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The legislation heralds the first instance of the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in the context of anti-discrimination in the annals of Indiana law, former Indianapolis mayor and Democrat Bart Peterson has pointed out. An auspicious moment indeed — just last week, an unapologetic Governor Pence told the Indianapolis Star that making LGBT residents a protected class was “not on my agenda.” (And indeed, the amendment does not go so far as to do that.)

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The legislators, along with Pence, have consistently denied that the law was discriminatory. “It was never intended to discriminate against anyone,” Long told reporters Thursday. “That perception led to the national protests we've seen.” On a Fox & Friends appearance, Pence told the hosts, “I abhor discrimination.” But despite their protestations, the anti-Indiana ire continued.

The amendment was forged during meetings Tuesday and Wednesday between Long, Bosma, Pence’s chief of staff Jim Atterholt, and various business leaders. Atterholt declined to comment on whether Pence had committed to sign the amendment, saying his boss had yet look over the plan.

Whether it will be enough to quell criticisms of the RFRA remains to be seen, since many critics ideally wanted the law to be repealed outright. And, as USA Today posits, it’s likely to annoy conservative advocacy groups who fought for the bill to be passed. An email from the Indiana American Family Association’s Micah Clarke apparently urged supporters to contact their state senators and pray for their state legislators.

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