Months after a divisive religious objections law thrust Indiana into an unwanted national spotlight, gay rights supporters and religious conservatives are preparing for another potentially bitter debate – this time over enshrining LGBT protections into state law.
Republican Gov. Mike Pence and key leaders in the GOP-controlled Legislature have gone to lengths to avoid publicly discussing the matter, even as Democrats plan to push legislation and several Indiana cities have considered adopting their own lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender protections. At the same time, religious conservatives are using a new tactic: raising concerns that children will be exposed to transgender people and what they say are sexual predators in public restrooms if the protections are approved.
No one with a stake in the issue – including a gay rights coalition that includes many of Indiana's prominent businesses – says there's much room for compromise. That sets the stage for what "could be a huge mess" when the Legislature convenes in January, said Paul Helmke, a public affairs professor at Indiana University and former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne. It also could have a lasting impact on Pence's re-election bid next year.
Tensions have simmered since the spring, when the Legislature faced backlash for the religious objections law, which social conservatives said was needed to protect the beliefs of merchants, including wedding planners, photographers and bakers who may object to working with gay couples.
The law was changed to address widespread worries that it could sanction discrimination against gays and lesbians. Still, lingering concerns and a hit to the state's image prompted a number of smaller Indiana cities to join Indianapolis and Bloomington, which have had LGBT protections on the books for years, and move forward with similar local ordinances.
Those efforts were turned back in Goshen and Elkhart after religious opponents pinpointed the "T'' in LGBT with what critics say is a "scare tactic" that's been used across the country.
Indiana-based group Advance America distributed flyers with scripted talking points to local churches that stated LGBT rights posed a "grave" public safety risk because it would "give men, including sexual predators … legal access to women's and girl's restrooms." Elected leaders say they were bombarded with calls and emails that repeated that script.
"They are hoping to derail the struggle for non-discrimination protections by disseminating really offensive myths," said Camilla Taylor, of Lambda Legal, a national LGBT advocacy group.
Advance America founder Eric Miller has said that it's not "fearmongering to tell the people the truth."
The split between social conservatives and business — key Republican constituencies — threatens Pence's re-election chances in 2016, as he runs the risk of alienating one or both.
"We've been very vocal that we're going to push for a statewide non-discrimination statute. That's no secret," said Jon Mills, a spokesman for heavy equipment manufacturer Cummins, a business in the LGBT rights coalition that includes Angie's List, Eli Lilly and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which is headquartered in Indianapolis.
Gay rights issues were one topic of discussion during recent talks the governor had with state business leaders, Pence spokeswoman Kara Brooks said without offering specifics.
House Speaker Brian Bosma said GOP lawmakers and the Pence administration have talked about LGBT rights, but he does not see it as a priority, and Senate President David Long said he expects his caucus will also "have our own contributions to this discussion."
But minority Democrats are nonetheless trying to turn up the heat on GOP lawmakers, sponsoring legislation that would add the phrases "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to Indiana's existing civil rights act, Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane said.
Helmke warned of what might happen in the coming session: "Unless it gets worked out some way behind the scenes, it could create trouble in the halls of the Legislature."