By Mary Kuhlman
State lawmakers are past the halfway point of this legislative session, and the House soon could vote on a controversial bill involving gender and religious rights.
Supporters of Senate Bill 101 say it would strengthen religious-freedom protections in state law by essentially prohibiting governments from substantially burdening a person's ability to exercise religion. But Jennifer Wagner, communications director for the bipartisan group Freedom Indiana, said it would create a right to discriminate based on personal religious beliefs, especially against those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
"It goes beyond LGBT issues when you're talking about whether or not folks in those situations can say, 'Oh, I'm not going to serve so-and-so because he's Jewish, or because she's Muslim,' " she said. "It is a Pandora's Box of unintended consequences."
The bill is modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which provides exceptions for religious minorities when a federal law impedes their religious practices. SB 101 passed the state Senate on a party-line vote.
Cummins Inc. in Columbus, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce are among those opposed to the legislation. If passed, said Cameron Carter, the chamber's vice president for economic development and federal affairs, the bill could place a burden on businesses.
"We're concerned that it would place employers in an untenable position and that it will open up the floodgates for lawsuits and litigation, which will be costly and time consuming," he said. "There are existing protections for those of religious faith, and we don't see the necessity. "
Advance America, a pro-church, pro-family group, supports the measure, and said it will "provide protection for individuals with sincerely held religious beliefs, along with Christian businesses and churches." But opponents argued it will disrupt economic growth and create an unwelcoming environment in Indiana.