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Legislators, Advocates Poised For Heated LGBT Rights Debate

Jeanne Smith is worried about how the debate at the statehouse over LGBT rights will impact young Hoosiers.

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The controversy over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act is continuing at the statehouse this year.

Legislators will consider whether to add civil rights protections for sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s constitution.

It’s an issue Governor Mike Pence did not address until his State of the State speech this week. And his stance has some Hoosiers gearing up for another battle over a familiar issue.

LGBT Community Wants Equal Protections

 Jeanne Smith is sitting at the kitchen table inside her Bloomington home, pressing her foot on the pedal of a sewing machine.

“This is like my fourth sewing machine,” she says. “I’ve finally got one I haven’t broken.”

They want to believe their religious rights trump our rights as human beings.

She spends a lot of her spare time sewing and is working on repairing the frayed sleeve of a beloved black cycling jacket with rainbow trim. Smith’s worn it for decades.

“I’ve had this jacket for probably 30 or 35 years,” she says.

But she hasn’t always felt as comfortable in her own skin as she does when she’s wearing that coat.

I knew I was transgender at five years old and I came out of the closet at 55 years old,” Smith says.

It took Smith so long to come out because she was afraid. She overcame that obstacle and is now living happily in Bloomington.

But she’s worried about how the ongoing conversation at the statehouse could impact other members of the transgender community.

“They’re trying to keep us second class citizens,” she says. “They want to believe their religious rights trump our rights as human beings.”

 Where Legislators Stand On The Issue

Hoosiers across the state anxiously waited to hear Pence weigh in on the issue after months of silence.

During his State of the State address, Pence said he will support civil rights legislation – but only if it doesn’t infringe on religious liberty.

“I will not support any bill that diminishes the religious freedom of Hoosiers or that interferes with the Constitutional rights of our citizens to live out their beliefs in worship, service or work,” Pence said. “Our freedoms are too precious to our people, to vital to our well-being and have been bought at too high a price to do any less.”

Several bills are being introduced during this year’s short session that Republicans think would strike that balance.

Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, has proposed two bills (SB 100 and SB 344)  that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, with exceptions for religious institutions and conscience.

But SB 344 doesn’t include protections for gender identity.

“We removed the transgender issue because that whole issue is still unsettled,” Holdman says. “Related to that was this whole restroom, shower room issue which was really causing a lot of confusion in the hallway, back in the districts with constituents and with our own members.”

We removed the transgender issue because that whole issue is still unsettled.

HB 1079 would make it illegal for people to knowingly use single-sex restrooms not designated for their biological sex. A second proposal, SB 35, would require bathrooms in schools to be designated for use by only one sex.

Under his most recent civil rights proposal, Holdman would move discussion of transgender issues, including the bathroom bills, to a summer study committee.

“We make that the topic of an interim study committee so that that issue and those folks would have center stage,” Holdman says. “There’s no other topic to be discussed when we talk about that transgender issue here in the legislature next fall. And so it gives those folks basically the only voice to be heard on that particular issue.”

There are two other proposals that relate to LGBT rights.

SB 66 has been dubbed the ‘super-RFRA’ and would repeal the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the ‘fix’ that prohibits discrimination against the LGBT community. It would define several rights outlined in the state constitution, including freedom of religion, as ‘fundamental rights’ that the government cannot infringe upon unless it has a compelling interest in doing so.

And HB 1221 would ask voters to weigh in on the debate over whether legislators should pass civil rights protections for the LGBT community.

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LGBT Advocates Push For ‘Four Words And A Comma’

The grassroots group pushing for LGBT non-discrimination protections says Holdman’s bills are nonstarters.

“We don’t study people in summer committees,” says Freedom Indiana Communications Director Jennifer Wagner. “We don’t send transgender people to be studied, nor do we really need to study this bathroom issue.”

Freedom Indiana is working with Democrats to push for SB 2 — what they say is the only bill that would provide equal non-discrimination protections for all Hoosiers. It’s a solution they call ‘four words and a comma.’

“Include sexual orientation, gender identity in the state civil rights law,” Wagner says. “That has not happened to be the course that senate leadership has chosen to follow.”

With a Republican-dominated statehouse, odds are that legislation won’t get a hearing.

Jeanne Smith is glad people across the state are talking about these issues. But some of the proposals being floated at the statehouse have her wondering if ‘Hoosier hospitality’ is just a myth.

“I’ve lived here since 1972, I’ve lived in Indiana for all of my life,” she says. “And this bathroom bill is the first time ever in my life I’ve thought, ‘I’ve got to get out of this state.’ If this becomes the law of the state of Indiana I would close my shop and I would move.”

 

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