Local Leaders React to Indiana House Passage of ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill

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Barely a week ago, a group of local community activists, elected officials, and LGBT allies were celebrating the third year anniversary of the passage of South Bend’s Human Rights Ordinance.

The Human Rights Ordinance bans discrimination in education, employment, and access to public accommodations based on race, color, sex, disability, national origin and ancestry. An amendment to the 1960s-era ordinance passed in 2012 to add sexual orientation and gender identity.

The ordinance’s passage was a seminal moment in a city that — like most American cities — has had its fair share of discrimination against both racial minorities and the LGBT community.

But those hard-fought rights are under attack in the state of Indiana.

The Republican-led super majorities in the Indiana House of Representatives and Indiana Senate have passed a pair of so-called “religious freedom” bills that threaten to make LGBT protections like the one in South Bend unenforceable.

“This bill was drafted without any regard for local laws, which means it could create problems for South Bend and other cities that have acted against discrimination,” says South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who signed the historic Human Rights Ordinance into law shortly after taking office in 2012.

Buttigieg warns that if Governor Mike Pence signs Indiana’s Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) “he will not only show disregard for community decisions, but also send exactly the wrong message about Indiana‚Äôs openness.”

The mayor also took issue with the divisive nature of the bills coming out of Indianapolis during the current session of the General Assembly.

“No one has explained why the Statehouse is focusing on divisive social issues when we have such pressing needs for action on infrastructure, jobs, child protection, and education,” Buttigieg adds.

Representative David Niezgodski, who represents South Bend and western St. Joseph County, was also critical of the bill.

“Every day we see evidence of people who through hope and diligence, continually work to bring us into a tomorrow where we have shed the failures of our past. We must still hold that vision true, because there unfortunately are those bent on reminding us that it is their wish that we return to that past,” Niezgodski said in a statement.

Niezgodski and Representative B. Patrick Bauer — who also represents part of South Bend in the Indiana House — both voted against the legislation. Representative Ryan Dvorak missed the vote.

Local representatives who voted for the bill include Elkhart County Republicans Wes Culver, Doug Miller, and Timothy Wesco, as well as Dale DeVon, who represents parts of Mishawaka and Granger.

The frustration and outright dismay with the Indiana legislature is perhaps expressed most poignantly through the voices of local LGBT leaders who are not only worried to see their rights rolled back but — perhaps most disturbingly — the creation of explicit legal protections to discriminate against their community.

“It’s a sad day in Indiana when discrimination is upheld as a religious freedom,” says Joel Barrett, a local LGBT leader and one of the co-organizers of Guerrilla Gay Bar. “Our state has just sent a big message to people everywhere that Indiana is NOT open for business to everyone.”

Barrett is one of many LGBT people who have questioned whether living Indiana is worth the risk should the bill become law.

“My husband and I will be begin making plans to exit this state unless Governor Pence vetoes this bill, which isn’t likely. Why would we subject ourselves to living in state that refuses to protect us from discrimination?” Barrett asks.

Others believe that it is not even wise to visit Indiana, given the real potential that essential services –including health care — could legally be denied under the claim of a “strongly held” religious belief.

Ray Koenig, a Chicago area lawyer with family and friends in Indiana, says that he is “highly unlikely to spend much, if any, time in the state of Indiana” if the bill becomes law.

“This bill will allow all businesses, including health care providers, to refuse to serve my multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, same-sex parented family for a multitude of reasons, all of which are based on hateful discrimination disguised as ‘religious freedom,'” Koenig says.

As for what the local LGBT community plans to do going forward should the bill become law, the GLBT Resource Center of Michiana says that they are already composing a list of self-declared LGBT-friendly businesses in the South Bend area “so that citizens will know where all are welcome and can avoid businesses that choose to discriminate against certain groups of people.”

“We will continue our mission to create a safe and welcoming community in Michiana, and will applaud the day when this legislation is overturned.”

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