Senate panel quickly advances religious freedom bill

File - Father David Mary Engo of the Franciscan Brothers Minor of Fort Wayne, Ind., addresses a rally of supporters of a religious freedom bill at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Monday, Feb. 9, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Republicans on an Indiana Senate committee didn’t wait for the Democratic members to arrive Wednesday before pushing through a contentious proposal supporters say would ensure people and businesses could refuse services for same-sex weddings because of religious beliefs.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s seven Republicans all voted in favor of the bill soon after the 8:30 a.m. meeting time without the three Democratic members present. Committee Chairman Brent Steele, R-Bedford, said he had announced to senators Tuesday that the panel had numerous bills to consider and needed to start on time.

“I would’ve started business with any quorum I got, whether it was Republican or Democrat or cows or horses,” Steele told The Associated Press after Wednesday’s meeting.

Democratic Sen. John Broden of South Bend said he would have voted against the bill but ran about 15 minutes late for the meeting. He said he didn’t believe any rules were broken by the committee’s action.

The Judiciary Committee heard about four hours of testimony on the bill last week, the same day that a couple hundred supporters attended a Statehouse rally where Republican Gov. Mike Pence was among the speakers.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce and some business executives argued that the proposal could hurt the state’s reputation and make it more difficult to attract companies.

Broden said he didn’t believe religious liberties were actually threatened in Indiana and that he worried the proposal could conflict with civil rights ordinances in such cities as Indianapolis, South Bend and Bloomington that go beyond state law to include homosexuals.

“I’m concerned that some may try to deny rights and opportunities to those classes of people under the guise of religious freedom,” he said.

The bill under consideration would prohibit any state laws that “substantially burden” a person’s ability to follow his or her religious beliefs and has definition of a “person” that includes religious institutions, corporations, partnerships and associations.

Social conservatives in several states have pushed similar bills as gay marriage has been legalized across the nation. Gay marriage opponents in Indiana were angered last year when the Legislature failed to advance a proposed state constitutional ban on same-sex marriages, which federal courts later legalized in the state.

The full state Senate could vote next week on approving the proposal, which supporters say is modeled after a federal religious freedom bill that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994.

Steele cited that law as his reason for supporting the bill.

“I think if it’s good enough for the federal government, it’s good enough for the state of Indiana,” he said.

When asked whether he was worried about the impacts raised by opponents of the proposal, Steele replied: “Absolutely not.”

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