Democrats and Republicans in Indiana clashed on Monday about how to contain a national outcry over the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed earlier this month, which critics blasted for allowing businesses to turn away LGBT customers.
"What we are proposing is to make it crystal clear that RFRA cannot be raised in a denial-of-services claim," Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma told BuzzFeed News.
The most powerful lawmaker in Indiana's Republican-controlled legislature, Bosma said he would collaborate with GOP leadership to add “clarifying language that no denial of services is intended under RFRA.”
Bosma said there was no draft of the legislation yet.
That apparent concession, though, was cold comfort to Democrats — who warned that clarifying “intent” of the law may be superficial.
"A real plan to fix this situation is repealing this act, which has made us the laughing stock of the nation,” Indiana Senate Minority Leader Timothy Lanane told BuzzFeed News. Lanane has filed a budget amendment (below) that would repeal the religious freedom law the same day it is enacted.
Protest was swift after Gov. Pence signed the bill last week: Apple CEO Tim Cook condemned the statute, the cloud computing company Salesforce vowed to withdraw employee travel from the state, and mayors in San Francisco and Seattle announced they would ban city employees from making publicly funded trips to Indiana.
Bosma said the backlash resulted from "miscommunication and misinterpretation by both opponents and proponents" who said the law legalizes turning away LGBT customers. Although Bosma said the law does nothing of the sort, the public outcry was "of grave concern to us."
"There was a mantra from opponents that it allowed denying service, and then, unfortunately, some proponents concurred," Bosma said.
Republicans had rejected amendments that would ban LGBT discrimination.
The GOP proposal to patch the bill now is a half measure, Democrats said. Lanane dismissed a potential fix because, he argued, "it was a vague statement of intent for the bill — that they don't intend for it to be used for discrimination. Intention doesn't mean action."
It is impossible to know if a GOP proposal would create a legally binding ban on discrimination under religious freedom laws, according to Lanane. "I haven't seen it yet. Where is it? Show it to me," he said.
Bosma said it is too early to float specific language. "We are just beginning to circulate discussion among leadership, and it is my hope we can make some prompt progress, but it is going to take work."
The religious freedom law, SB 101, says that a “governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.” Critics say it goes beyond a federal religious freedom law by applying those rules to businesses and interactions between private parties. The bill states that it applied in lawsuits “regardless of whether the state or any other government entity is party to the proceeding.”
In addition to repealing the law, Democrats are also pushing a companion measure that would expand the state's civil rights law to include gay, lesbian, and bisexual people as a protected class. Sen. Lanane said the measure does not cover gender identity.
But any repeal or civil rights law expansion is a long shot.
"It is highly doubtful that a repeal would be in order at this point," Bosma told BuzzFeed News. "I really believe the right thing to do is not to repeal but make crystal clear the RFRA standard cannot be used for denial of service."
Expanding the state's civil rights law would be "very difficult to accomplish" in the four remaining weeks of the session, Bosma said, and "a big policy leap for the general assembly." Even clarifying the bill is a challenge in a GOP-dominated legislature that passed the RFRA by supermajorities.
Lanane acknowledged the repeal campaign from Democrats "probably is a long shot, but that doesn’t mean it's not the right thing to do. They contol the agenda. I am just giving them sage advice: If you want to salvage the reputation of our state, you would do a 180 on this bill."
Dominic Holden is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Dominic Holden at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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