There is a movement growing in Indiana.
Whether or not Governor Mike Pence has it on his agenda, Hoosiers are calling on the state to strengthen civil rights protections for the LGBTQ community.
While the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) may have accelerated the movement, the proverbial ball began rolling a few years ago. Organizations like Freedom Indiana helped mobilize those most passionate about LGBTQ rights. The fights over marriage equality were equivalent to the battles of Lexington and Concord that signaled the start of the American Revolution. Now the "new" revolution is the fight to have sexual orientation and gender identity recognized as immutable characteristics protected under Indiana civil rights laws. The recognition would place sexual orientation and gender identity on par with race, religion, disability, color, gender and national origin or ancestry.
When asked by the press if adding sexual orientation and gender identity to Indiana's civil rights laws would be or could be addressed by the Legislature this year, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R- Indianapolis, and Senate Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said there were too few states with those protections on the books for Indiana to rush into the issue and it would be impossible for the needed rigorous debate and intensive study to take place during the current legislative session.
According to the ACLU, 18 states and Washington D.C. include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in their employment non-discrimination laws while three others have protections for sexual orientation only. Here in the Midwest, sexual orientation is protected in Wisconsin while Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa have protections for both. Although Indiana has no state statute protecting the LGBTQ community, several cities and counties have the language in their local human rights ordinances.
Muncie became the latest city to include sexual identity as a protected class in its local ordinance along with those with disabilities and veterans when the Muncie city council voted to add the language Monday night. Mayor Dennis Tyler said the decision to act quickly was a direct result of the RFRA controversy as he and city councilors feared the consequences if they didn't do something now. Muncie now joins Indianapolis, Bloomington, South Bend, Evansville, New Albany, West Lafayette, Lafayette, Fort Wayne, Michigan City and Terre Haute as Hoosier cities that all have sexual orientation protected against discrimination through local ordinances.
Indiana's civil rights laws cover protected classes in terms of credit, employment, education, housing and public accommodations. However, the LGBTQ community is not granted any of those protections by way of state statute. The only "right" gays and lesbians have in Indiana currently is the right to marry. That right's less than six months old — and wasn't the result of state law, but came from a heated battle in the federal court system. Despite the U.S. District court's declaration of Indiana's marriage law as unconstitutional, not one legislator proposed a bill in the current General Assembly session to make any technical changes or to remove the language from the Indiana Code. The law that was invalidated by a federal court mandate has yet to be repealed.
Both House and Senate Democrats have been calling for the repeal of Indiana's RFRA law since public outcry and the destruction of the state's reputation began. The Republican leadership, however opted for "clarification" language that essentially replaced an existing (and apparently meaningless) bill that was still active and ready for a vote in the Legislature. That language was meant to clarify that RFRA could not be used to discriminate based on someone's sexual orientation. Legislators needed to quiet the booming concerns of the business community who reacted negatively to RFRA along with numerous others including Hoosier citizens, celebrities, corporate leaders and other states and cities around the nation. But civil rights attorney Stephanie Jane Hahn of Indianapolis says the "fix" is nothing more than a toothless tiger—a lot of show that really means nothing.
"It's not just enough to say, 'Oh, well, we don't want to discriminate,'" said Hahn. "There have to be actual remedies."
Hahn practices exclusively in employment and labor law, specifically discrimination and retaliation cases. From her perspective, RFRA was a bad idea from the very beginning.
"It was a really poorly written statute first and foremost," said Hahn. "Second of all, it certainly didn't protect individuals or Indiana citizens. As a matter of fact, it threw a lot of people under the bus."