January 15, 2016

Religious liberty threatened in proposed state civil rights legislation

A view of the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

A view of the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

On the heels of a turbulent 2015 legislative session battle over the state’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), Indiana lawmakers returned to the Statehouse on Jan. 4 to address an ongoing controversy between supporters of religious freedom and advocates of an expansion of protected class status for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

A proposal to expand civil rights protection for sexual orientation and gender identity raises concerns of potential infringement on religious freedom, according to Glenn Tebbe, executive director for the Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC), who serves as the official public policy spokesperson for the Church in Indiana.

“The Catholic Church has a long history of supporting the dignity of the human person, including those with same-sex attraction. We also oppose unjust discrimination,” said Tebbe. But he explained the current proposals leave too much room for interpretation, which could potentially result in Catholic ministries being forced to support behavior contrary to Church teaching.

“The Catholic Church and its affiliated institutions have a long tradition of service responding to persons of all faiths and those who profess none when they face a crisis or need,” Tebbe added. “We provide opportunities for education and healing and comfort for people of all faiths and situations to live a full and fruitful life.

“In accordance with Catholic teaching, the Church has both the right and the duty to carry out its mission of mercy without having to cheapen the notion of mercy out of coercion or intimidation,” he continued. “When seeking to assist someone in need, we do not first ask whether the person is Catholic. We serve others not because they are Catholic, we serve because we are Catholic, obligated to do so by our faith. Our disapproval of one’s conduct or lifestyle should not cause us to shutter our institutions or ministries. Difference of opinion is not the same as discrimination.”

Sen. Travis Holdman, (R-Markle), said that given the firestorm that erupted during last year’s session over RFRA and concerns of potential discrimination of the LGBT community, he wanted to take a “more proactive approach” at balancing and protecting civil rights and religious freedom.

Senate Bill 100, authored by Holdman, adds sexual orientation, gender identity, active duty military status and veteran status as protected classes under Indiana’s civil rights laws. It prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, education and access to credit.

Holdman said the bill was drafted to place certain protections against government sanctions on religious institutions. He added that he has done his best to work with staff attorneys to try to think through unintended consequences that would infringe upon the First Amendment right of religious freedom, but conceded that it is difficult to account for everything. He is offering an alternative proposal, Senate Bill 344, which addresses an expansion of civil rights, yet removes transgender persons from the bill to give more time to study the issue and how to address it.

Tebbe said that while he greatly respects Holdman and his efforts to codify a balance of civil rights and religious freedom in Senate Bill 100 and Senate Bill 344, “as a matter of principle, religious liberty demands more than a mere ‘exemption’ in the law.

“Religious freedom is a fundamental and foundational First Amendment right,” Tebbe noted. “Whether it is an institution or an individual, no one should be forced to act in a manner against conscience or creed.”

Tebbe expressed great concern over the vagueness of the terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in the proposed bills.

“These terms are ambiguous, subjective, self-determined and problematic as they relate to the application in a state statute,” he said. “The legislation grants the [Indiana] Civil Rights Commission the latitude to shape the regulation and interpretation of the newly worded rights. Politics and trends affect the definition of these things which are subject to change.”

Tebbe said that he appreciates Holdman’s efforts to both uphold the dignity of the person with same-sex attraction, and to accommodate for religious institutions and their affiliated organizations.

“In spite of these efforts, the fact remains that religious freedoms are not guaranteed for all,” Tebbe said of the bills. “Due to concerns about the terms and the effects of the law, we cannot support Senate Bill 100 or Senate Bill 344 in their current form.”

Tebbe said he is hopeful that he and others can continue to work on the proposals. “During the process, we must show mutual respect for one another so that dialogue and discernment can take place to ensure that no one in Indiana will face discrimination—whether it is for their sexual orientation or for living their religious beliefs.”

Both Senate Bill 344 and Senate Bill 100 have been assigned to the Senate Committee on Rules and Legislative Procedure, which is chaired by Sen. President Pro Tem David Long (R-Fort Wayne). Long said he intends to have the committee hear both bills later this month.

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion. For more information about the Indiana Catholic Conference, its Indiana Catholic Action Network and the bills it is following in the Indiana General Assembly this year, log on to www.indianacc.org.)

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