Local lawmakers question need for civil rights change

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana lawmakers representing Columbus don’t believe a lack of statewide civil rights protections for LGBT Hoosiers hinders employers from attracting quality workers or stifles the state economy.

A coalition of Indiana businesses known as Indiana Competes launched efforts this week to encourage lawmakers to pass legislation in the January legislative session designating lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers as a protected class in the state’s civil rights code.

Columbus-based Cummins Inc. and Upland Brewing Co., which has plans to open a restaurant in the former Columbus Pump House, are among 150 businesses in the coalition.

Refusing to pass LGBT protections would give Indiana an unwelcoming reputation, which will deter skilled workers from seeking employment in the state, the coalition said.

For Marya Rose, chief administrative officer for Cummins, it’s as simple as looking at what other companies have to offer — especially if they’re bordering an ocean or mountain range, providing natural beauty that surpasses Indiana’s prairie.

“When we think about Indiana, we have to make sure that Indiana is creating environments where people want to come and work,” she said, adding that the question for top talent becomes: “Do I want to go live in Indiana, or do I want to go live in Seattle?”

However, State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, said Indiana’s economy is growing, even after the nationwide uproar over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in spring.

The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the bill, better known as RFRA, in March to allow state courts to intervene if business owners felt the government was infringing upon their religious liberty in any way.

State Democrats and large employers, however, fiercely fought the bill, saying it gave business owners the right to discriminate against LGBT customers because of religious beliefs.

Several employers threatened to pull their business out of Indiana if RFRA was not repealed. Ultimately, lawmakers passed an amended bill that said businesses could not discriminate based on sexual orientation but declined to add that protection to the state’s civil rights code.

Churches, religious schools and ministers were exempt from the amended provisions.

Upland Brewing President Doug Dayhoff said he was at a brewery festival in North Carolina during the height of the national outcry over the religious objections law. He said he was approached by others at the festival who were expressing a negative perception of Indiana as a result of the controversy.

“Within the first 15 minutes of starting to share our beers, the first person made a remark and said, ‘Oh you’re from Indiana. I’m not sure I like what your state stands for,’” Dayhoff said. “As somebody who works to export our product outside of our state, around the country, that is really troubling for us.”

Since passage of RFRA, groups similar to Indiana Competes have continued to claim that Indiana will lose businesses if special protections are not included in the state law for same-sex couples.

But Walker said many companies actually have plans to expand in the state.

Amazon, for example, announced last summer that it would add 2,000 jobs to its Indiana workforce.

Similarly, a tech firm known as Appirio recently relocated its headquarters from San Francisco to Indianapolis, Walker said.

Statewide tourism is also up, Walker said, and even reservations for the downtown Indianapolis Convention Center are on the rise.

Based on those business developments, Walker said he thinks claims that the LGBT debate is hurting Indiana’s economy are unfounded.

“There is a discussion to be had about personal liberties and all the issues regarding diversity and discrimination, and we are having those conversations,” he said. “But trying to make this an economic discussion, I don’t see the connection.”

State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, said he could not gauge the effect LGBT protections would have on the state economy. However, he also said he does not believe state lawmakers were trying to discriminate against LGBT Hoosiers by excluding those protections from the civil rights code in the spring.

The bigger issue is finding a balance between religious and civil liberties, a compromise he said cannot be reached if both conservative and liberal lawmakers continue to dig in their heels.

“We don’t allow discrimination against any group, but we have to have some flexibility,” Smith said. 

Smith said the matter should be left to the courts, which is what RFRA was originally intended to do.

State GOP leaders are already working toward finding common ground with Democrats. Republicans in the Senate proposed a bill last month that would grant protections to LGBT Hoosiers while also carving out certain religious exemptions.

Neither Gov. Mike Pence nor House Speaker Brian Bosma, both Republicans, have said if they support the proposal.

Pence said he is studying it and having conversations with constituents around the state.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

How to learn more

To learn more about Indiana Competes and the businesses in the coalition, visit indianacompetes.org.

To read the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the amended version of the bill or the Indiana Civil Rights Code, visit iga.in.gov/legislative.

Author photo
Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.