Religious liberty in jeopardy under proposed bill expanding protected class status in Indiana

By Brigid Curtis Ayer 

INDIANAPOLIS — On the heels of a turbulent 2015 legislative session battle over the new state Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), Hoosier lawmakers returned to the statehouse Jan. 4, to address an ongoing controversy between religious freedom and an expansion of protected class status for the LGBT community.

A proposal to expand civil rights protection for sexual orientation and gender identity raises concerns of potential infringement on religious freedom according to Glenn Tebbe, executive director for the Indiana Catholic Conference, who serves as the official public policy watchdog for the Roman Catholic Church in Indiana.

“The Catholic Church has a long history of supporting the dignity of the human person including those with same-sex attraction. We also oppose unjust discrimination,” said Tebbe. But he explained the current proposals leave too much room for interpretation, which could potentially result in Catholic ministries being forced to support immoral behavior.

Tebbe, who serves as the official representative of the five Indiana bishops, and the Catholic Church in Indiana said, “The Catholic Church and its affiliated institutions have a long tradition of service, responding to persons of all faiths and those who profess none when they face a crisis or need. We provide opportunities for education and healing and comfort for people of all faiths and situations to live a full and fruitful life.”

“In accordance with Catholic teaching, the Church has both the right and the duty to carry out its mission of mercy without having to cheapen the notion of mercy out of coercion or intimidation,” said Tebbe.

“When seeking to assist someone in need, we do not first ask whether the person is Catholic. We serve others not because ‘they’ are Catholic, we serve because ‘we’ are Catholic, obligated to do so by our faith,” he said. “Our disapproval of one’s conduct or lifestyle should not cause us to shutter our institutions or ministries. Difference of opinion is not the same as discrimination.”

Sen. Travis Holdman (R-Markle) said that given the firestorm that erupted last session over the state’s RFRA and concerns of potential discrimination of the LGBT community, he wanted to take a “more proactive approach” at balancing and protecting civil rights and religious freedom.

Senate Bill 100, authored by Holdman, adds sexual orientation, gender identity, active-duty military status and veteran status as protected classes under Indiana’s civil rights laws. It prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, education and access to credit.

Holdman said the bill was drafted to place certain protections against government sanctions on religious institutions. And that he has done his best to work with staff attorneys to try to think through unintended consequences that would infringe upon the first amendment right of religious freedom, but conceded that it’s difficult to account for everything. Holdman is offering an alternative proposal, SB 344, which addresses an expansion of civil rights yet removes transgender persons from the bill to give more time to study the issue and how to address it.

Tebbe said while he greatly respects Sen. Holdman and his efforts to codify a balance of civil rights and religious freedom in SB 100 and SB 344, he said “as a matter of principle, religious liberty demands more than a mere ‘exemption’ in the law.” Tebbe said, “Religious Freedom is a fundamental, and foundational first amendment right. Whether it is an institution or an individual, no one should be forced to act in a manner against conscience or creed.”

As it relates to the proposal, Tebbe expressed great concern over the vagueness of the terms sexual orientation and gender identity. “These terms are ambiguous, subjective, self-determined and problematic as they relate to the application in a state statute,” Tebbe said. “The legislation grants the Civil Rights Commission the latitude to shape the regulation and interpretation of the newly-worded rights. Politics and trends affect the definition of these things which are subject to change.”

Tebbe said that he appreciates Sen. Holdman’s efforts to both uphold the dignity of the person dealing with sexual orientation issues and to accommodate for religious institutions and their affiliated organizations. “In spite of these efforts, the fact remains that religious freedoms are not guaranteed for all,” said Tebbe. “Due to concerns about the terms and the effects of the law, we cannot support SB 100 or SB 344 in its current form,” said Tebbe.

Tebbe said he is hopeful that he and others can continue to work on the proposals.

“During the process, we must show mutual respect for one another so that dialogue and discernment can take place to ensure that no one in Indiana will face discrimination whether it is for their sexual orientation or for living their religious beliefs,” said Tebbe.

Both SB 344 and SB 100 have been assigned to the Senate Committee on Rules and Legislative Procedure, which is chaired by Senate President Pro Tem David Long (R-Fort Wayne). Long said he intends to have the committee hear both bills later this month.

Posted on January 13, 2016, to: