Indiana chamber backs statewide gay rights protections

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Less than a year after big business helped pressure Indiana Republicans to scale back their contentious new religious objections law, the state’s powerful business lobby has decided that step wasn’t enough.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the voice of the state’s business establishment, called Nov. 5 for Republican Gov. Mike Pence and the GOP-controlled Legislature to extend the state’s civil rights protections to bar discrimination against people based on their LGBT status.

“We believe this expansion is a necessary action for the General Assembly to take,” said group President and CEO Kevin Brinegar. “After the negative perception of our state generated by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the spring, we need to get this right.”

For months, gay rights supporters and religious conservatives who clashed over the religious objections law have anticipated a bitter debate when the Legislature convenes in January – this time over enshrining protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. Pence and key leaders in the GOP-controlled Legislature have gone to lengths to avoid discussing the matter publicly, even as they are having private conversations with prominent business leaders who support LGBT rights.

The issue drives a wedge between two stalwart pillars of the Republican Party’s base: the business establishment and social conservatives. Thus far, GOP leaders have struggled to bridge the gap. In a recent interview with WRTV-TV in Indianapolis, Pence indicated that he wonders whether the concerns of religious conservatives can be reconciled with those of gay rights supporters who want LGBT protections in the law.

The Pence administration declined to comment on the chamber’s announcement and has consistently refused to say where the governor stands on the issue.

In a statement, spokeswoman Kara Brooks said Pence “has been meeting with leaders on all sides of the issue and will continue to give the matter thoughtful consideration.”

GOP Senate leader David Long declined to comment through a spokesman. An emailed statement from Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma did not directly address the chamber’s announcement or offer a policy preference.

“If there is a way forward, it could involve a uniquely Indiana solution – one that reconciles our desire to eliminate discrimination against any Hoosier and still recognizes every Hoosier’s constitutional right to exercise freedom of conscience,” Bosma wrote.

Brinegar said the chamber doesn’t usually get involved in “social issues,” but that this issue is important to the business community and isn’t likely to go away. If lawmakers don’t take action, Indiana may damage its ability to attract and retain talented employees and businesses, he said.

At the annual meeting Nov. 4, over 80 percent of the chamber’s 100-plus member board cast silent ballots in favor of making LGBT rights a priority.

Tensions have simmered since spring, when the Legislature faced a backlash for passing the religious objections law, which social conservatives said was needed to protect the rights of those who object to homosexuality for religious reasons but which critics said was really an invitation to discriminate against the LGBT community.

The law was changed to address widespread worries that it could sanction discrimination against gays and lesbians.

In the ensuing months Pence’s approval numbers plummeted, according to a poll WISH TV-Ball State poll released Wednesday. Pence, who is running for re-election, ended 2014 with a 62 percent approval rating. But that number has since slipped 15 percentage points, to a 47 percent approval rating, according to the poll.

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