Religious freedom turmoil likely to spill into next year

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The colorful fliers passed out by aides to Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and House Speaker Brian Bosma last week highlighted what both called numerous accomplishments of this year's legislative session.

Left unmentioned in those handouts was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which put an unflattering national spotlight on Indiana amid a rancorous debate over whether the law could provide legal cover for discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The furor that erupted across social media, at water coolers and on national television programs sparked major corporations and groups to vow to steer clear of Indiana and the NCAA's leaders to challenge the law just days before the men's basketball Final Four. And though legislative leaders scrambled to add non-discrimination language to the legislation to quell the storm, the effects are likely to be felt long into 2016 as debates over gay rights shape the next session of the General Assembly and the gubernatorial campaign.

Bosma acknowledged last week that the religious objections uproar posed "one of the biggest distractions — I guess that's an understatement" — for lawmakers this year but said "it will be a memory."

That might be wishful thinking. Legislative Democrats say they plan to push next year to add nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity to the Indiana civil-rights law covering education, employment, public accommodations and housing.

Former Indiana House Speaker John Gregg, a Democrat who narrowly lost the 2012 governor's race to Pence, announced his 2016 candidacy last week by saying Pence's focus on social issues has given the state "a bad name."

Republicans are also taking heat from supporters of the law. A group of conservative pastors blasted Pence and top GOP lawmakers during a Statehouse rally last week, accusing them of selling out religious liberties in order to quiet complaints from big businesses.

House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath of Michigan City said he expected the uproar over the religious objections law to cost Republicans legislative seats in next year's election. He said the law has done lasting harm to Indiana's economy by discouraging people and businesses from moving into the state.

"Instead, we are pursuing policies that are going to drive them away," Pelath said. "Not just with the minutiae of legalisms, but with the attitudes that lie behind efforts to discriminate in Indiana."

Neither Pence nor Republican legislative leaders included the religious objections law as they promoted agendas for this year's session, but they embraced the bill as it advanced through the House of Representatives and Senate with only GOP votes in support.

Pence avoided talking about the controversy until the end of a half-hour news conference Thursday in which he discussed the legislative session.

"Looking back, as governor of the state I wish I could have foreseen the controversy that would have ensued," he said. "I regret the difficulty that Indiana passed through during a time of great misunderstanding about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I was pleased to support legislation clarifying what the bill was and what the bill wasn't. And I was pleased that it calmed the storm and we were able to move on as a state."

Republican Senate President Pro Tem David Long said he still doesn't believe the law condoned discrimination and that national activists led "a very well-orchestrated, kind of, nuking of Indiana" over social media.

Lasting images of the uproar include a photo of Pence signing the bill while surrounded by several prominent Indiana social conservatives, including one whose website postings said the law would help protect Christian business owners from being compelled to provide services for same-sex marriages.

Long said the federal court ruling that legalized gay marriages in Indiana last year contributed to the turmoil, but mostly blamed it on misperceptions that were stirred up.

"I will say the truth hasn't mattered on either side, the far left or the far right," Long said. "People are saying what they want to say about it for their own purposes."

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