More than 50 people gathered Wednesday morning in downtown Columbus to protest a proposed bill aimed at religious freedom.

The protesters set up at Third and Washington, a few feet from the Bartholomew County Courthouse, in hopes that public outcry would dissuade Republican Gov. Mike Pence, a Columbus native, from signing Senate Bill 101 — referred to as the Religious Freedom Act — into law.

Opponents contend such a law would give Indiana businesses the right to refuse services to same-sex couples for religious purposes.

Columbus protesters held up signs that read “SB 101 = Discriminate” and “Real Hoosiers don’t Discriminate.”

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As the crowd chanted “No hate in our state,” some motorists who passed through the intersection honked their horns in approval.

Leah Jackman-Wheitner, the rally organizer, said passage of the bill into law would set Indiana back on the world stage. Jackman-Wheitner said she hopes Wednesday’s rally gives Pence an idea of the effect this bill will have on the state.

“Who wants to come live in a state where the Legislature has said you can be discriminated against?” Jackman-Wheitner said.

Jacqueline Patterson, an engineer at Cummins, said she was disappointed that Pence said he was looking forward to signing the bill into law. She called it one more issue that impacts people’s opinion of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

A day earlier, a spokesman for her employer said the bill is bad for business and bad for Indiana.

Senate Bill 101 will damage Indiana’s reputation as a welcoming state, said Jon Mills, director of external communications for Cummins Inc., which is the county’s largest employer.

Mills said the legislation runs counter to the company’s core values of respecting diversity and demanding mutual respect of all people.

Gary Hallum, a Columbus native and retired school teacher, said he hopes Pence changes his mind. But if the governor does sign the bill into law, Hallum predicted that the fallout will follow Pence for the rest of his political career.

Convention backlash

Organizers of Indianapolis’ largest convention have asked Pence to reconsider signing the bill that could legalize discrimination against gays.

Adrian Swartout, owner and CEO of Gen Con LLC, sent a letter to the governor Tuesday, saying the legislation will factor into the gaming convention’s future in Indiana. She told Pence the bill could allow for refusal of service or discrimination against Gen Con’s diverse attendee base and will negatively impact the state’s economy.

Swartout said the table-top gaming convention attracted 56,000 people last year and has an annual economic impact of more than $50 million.

Gen Con has a contract requiring the conference to be conducted in the city through 2020, spokeswoman Stacia Kirby said.

Its local future could be in doubt afterward, however.

There could be other convention fallout as well.

Joyce Lucke, owner and president of Paragon Meeting and Events, said she knows of two other organizations that are set to have conventions in Indianapolis in the coming years that may reconsider if Pence signs the bill into law.

North-Central Sociological Association is supposed to come in 2017, and the Association for General & Liberal Studies is supposed to follow in 2018, Lucke said.

“Hopefully he’ll have the sense to listen to the outcry,” Lucke said of Pence.

Lawmakers’ rationale

Senate Bill 101 passed the House 63-31 on Monday after approval in the Senate last month, including unanimous support from Bartholomew County’s Statehouse delegation.

State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, a sponsor for the bill, said Tuesday that it protects religious freedom without discriminating against anyone.

The Columbus legislator pointed to a letter written by the University of Virginia School of Law’s Douglas Laycock, considered by Indiana legislators before voting.

Laycock said religious freedom bills do not allow businesses to discriminate for religious reasons.

According to Laycock, businesspeople can assert a claim or defense under the religious freedom act and would have to prove the substantial burden of sincere religious practice while the government or the person suing them has the burden of proof on compelling government interest. The state courts then decide the case.

Indiana’s bill is similar to the federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, passed about 20 years ago and signed by then-President Bill Clinton.

The federal act was cited in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling in 2014, which said that private corporations cannot be required under the federal Affordable Care Act to provide contraceptives to employees when that offends the company owner’s religious beliefs. The case was about Hobby Lobby’s objection to having to provide coverage for medication that could cause an abortion, Smith said.

So far, 19 states have passed similar versions of the religious-freedom law, including Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky. Smith said another 11 state supreme courts have ruled on the act.

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