Officials in some Indiana cities with ordinances that provide protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents are worried that a bill lawmakers will consider in the 2016 session could undermine their local authority.
The bill, released Nov. 17 and backed by Senate Republicans, would extend state civil rights protections to LGBT people, but also carve out broad exemptions for religious institutions and some small businesses that object to working with gay people. If it becomes law, it would bar local governments from enforcing protections stricter than its statewide protections.
In South Bend, which added sexual orientation and gender identity to its human rights ordinance in 2012, officials are still studying the proposal, but Mayor Pete Buttigieg said it seems "designed to weaken our local nondiscrimination rules."
"I don't know why the state would want to undermine a local law that has worked well in South Bend," he told the South Bend Tribune.
Business groups and other supporters of LGBT rights are pushing the Legislature to adopt protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the wake of a religious objections law that state lawmakers passed last spring.
In recent months, Carmel, Columbus, Zionsville, Terre Haute, Hammond and Muncie have adopted ordinances protecting LGBT residents, joining Indianapolis, Bloomington and about a dozen other Indiana communities that already had LGBT protections.
But efforts to add similar ordinances in Goshen and Elkhart were turned back following campaigns mounted by conservative lobbyist Eric Miller of the Indianapolis-based group Advance America.
Senate President Pro Tempore Dave Long, R-Fort Wayne, has described the new legislation as "an attempt to balance civil rights and religious liberty."
State Sen. Travis Holdman, a Markle Republican who authored the Senate bill, said its language pre-empting local law is about consistency.
"We're getting a whole variety of ordinances being passed by locals — I think we're up to 17 communities that have differing standards when it comes to discrimination — and I think this just pulls everything together to say the state is going to set the standard when it comes to the whole state of Indiana," he said.
As proposed, the statewide measure would allow businesses with fewer than four employees to deny wedding services to same-sex couples "based on a sincerely held religious belief." That runs contrary to the state's local human rights ordinances, which bar businesses from denying service to individuals based on sexual orientation or gender identity regardless of the circumstances.
Sarah Perfetti, the executive director of Bloomington Pride, said she worries that the bill "will undermine the protections we have in Bloomington which have helped make our city open and accepting to all people."
"This bill sends a bad message to everyone, especially the youth in our community who already suffer a lot of discrimination. What the legislation needs to do is allow us full and explicit protections," Perfetti said in a written statement.