Indiana House panel endorses religious objections bill

One of two groups who rallied at the Statehouse on March 16, 2015 before a hearing on a religious freedom bill. (WISH Photo/Kevin Stinson)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Rallies drawing hundreds of people on both sides of a contentious proposal that could allow people to cite strong religious beliefs to deny services for activities such as same-sex weddings didn’t seem to change any minds among Indiana legislators Monday.

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Republicans backed the bill in the 9-4 party-line vote in the Indiana House Judiciary Committee after a four-hour hearing inside the House chamber filled with red-wearing opponents and green-garbed supporters. Each side had more than 100 people at Statehouse rallies held before the committee meeting started.

Republican support for the measure has remained solid, even as some business groups continue to oppose it by saying it could hurt the state’s reputation and make it more difficult to attract top employees and companies. All GOP senators were in favor of the bill as it cleared the Senate in a 40-10 vote last month and it now goes to the full House for consideration.

Supporters say the proposal is aimed at protecting religious freedom and preventing the government from compelling people to be involved in activities they consider objectionable, such as same-sex weddings.

They say it is closely modeled on a federal religious freedom law passed in 1993 and that 19 other states already have similar laws.

“This is not an experiment — this is not a new idea,” bill sponsor Rep. Tim Wesco, R-Osceola, told the committee. “This is something that has been around for over 20 years.”

Law professors and Christian and Jewish clergy testified on both sides of the debate during Monday’s hearing, divided over the question of the bill’s impact on protecting religious beliefs versus potentially giving legal cover for discrimination against gays and transgender people. Situations cited included whether bakers or photographers would be required to provide services for gay weddings.

Among those testifying against the bill was Amy Sandler of Munster, who successfully sued to have her same-sex marriage recognized by the state before her spouse Niki Quasney died last month from ovarian cancer.

Sandler, who had two young daughters with Quasney, fought back tears as she argued that families such as hers shouldn’t have to worry about facing discrimination on religious grounds.

“This bill is written so that anybody can decide for themselves who is worthy of to be treated with respect,” Sandler 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 a definition of a “person” that includes religious institutions, corporations, partnerships and associations.

Opponents say that the Indiana proposal could lead to legal challenges against civil rights ordinances covering gays in such cities as Indianapolis, South Bend, Evansville and Bloomington.

The House committee approved a change to the bill specifying that businesses couldn’t face lawsuits from employees claiming religious freedom violations under the proposed law, which the Indiana Chamber of Commerce had raised as a concern

Cummins Inc. Chief Administrative Officer Marya Rose said the Columbus-based engine maker still believed the bill could lead to legal challenges as it tried to enforce state or local laws.

“Anything that sends the message that Indiana is an unwelcoming state that allows individuals and business to discriminate against others is bad for business and bad for Indiana,” Rose said.

The proposal’s supporters cited what they saw as government restrictions on religious activities ranging from a zoning fight for a proposed church in the northern Indiana city of Goshen to the University of Notre Dame’s ongoing lawsuit over the federal health overhaul law’s rules on paying for contraceptives.

The bill’s protections are needed so that religious faith can be “lived out in all of life,” said Bill Katip, president of Grace College and Seminary in Winona Lake. “The practice of the Christian faith is not simply to be restricted within the four walls of a place of worship.”

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