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Senate committee approves civil rights bill

Posted at 6:23 PM, Jan 27, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS -- A Senate committee approved Senate Bill 344, a bill to expand the state's civil rights laws to some members of the LGBT community, while carving out exemptions to protect religious freedom. 

Republicans who supported the bill call it a "good start." They voted to expand the state's civil rights laws to include "sexual orientation." But, lawmakers would study the topic of "gender identity" or protections for transgender individuals at a later time.

The proposal repeals the religious freedom act. It exempts certain adoption agencies and crisis pregnancy centers.

"We all are collectively disappointed the transgender community is now out of the bill, and that's going to have to be worked back in," Bill Oesterle said. 

"I don't think it goes far enough. There are a couple of places where there are good and strong protections. But, once you start making a list, I worry about who we are leaving off," Curt Smith said. 

Senate President David Long chaired the more than four hour long hearing in a packed room. 

"I know that passions are high here on both sides of the issue. We understand that. We respect that," Long said. 

Those passions were evident in the number of people who testified and showed up at the Statehouse to watch the discussion in person.

Melissa Klein, A former bakery owner from Oregon, explained to lawmakers how she lost her dream business over a decision not to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple based on her religious beliefs. 

"Not only did we face the full force of the law, but our property was vandalized, we received death threats, and we have five children, and people said horrible things to them," Klein said. 

A transgender veteran told the committee survival is part of her story, something she thinks could change if protected under the state's civil rights laws. 

"I wanted to come home in a flag-draped coffin so nobody would no my terrible secret. I wanted to commit suicide by war to be remembered as a hometown hero and not a disgrace," Rhiannon Carlson said.

The bill now moves to the full Senate for consideration. But not without acknowledgement that the balance between expanded civil rights protections and religious freedom will be a difficult one to strike. 

Freedom Indiana campaign manager Chris Paulsen released the following statement about the vote:  

"Lawmakers still aren't listening. Tonight, they took a bad bill and made it worse for LGBT people in our state who have to live each day in fear that they could be fired, denied housing or turned away from a public place for who they are. 

"Senate Bill 344 continues to fall far short of ending legal discrimination against LGBT people in our state. As amended, it repeals the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act but replaces it with substandard protections that omit transgender people entirely and provide religious carveouts that undermine the very purpose of the civil rights law. We will continue to work with lawmakers to fix this bill, but we are disappointed that they have not made the substantive changes we know a majority of Hoosiers want to make our state open and welcoming to all people."

Indiana Competes also released a statement: 

“The legislature had a chance to strengthen Indiana tonight and make our state more competitive, but this opportunity was not seized. We want to believe the General Assembly is sincere in their efforts to pass meaningful legislation to eliminate discrimination, but tonight's hearing showed Indiana missing another opportunity.

“The Hoosier business community has said from the beginning that Indiana must be a place that welcomes all, not most. We respect the legislative process and will continue to work with the General Assembly, but we will not support a final bill that does not provide for equal rights for the entire LGBT community.

“Business owners, faith leaders and anti-discrimination supporters have shared the message tonight that Senate Bill 344 is still woefully inadequate because it leaves out the transgender community and provides numerous allowances for additional discrimination. That is not the answer.”

“This legislation represents a good-faith effort to balance religious liberty and civil rights protections for gay and lesbian Hoosiers,” State Sen. Travis Holdman said in a statement. “We all know this is a contentious issue, but I believe it’s one the General Assembly must address and I look forward to continuing the discussion in the days ahead.”

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