Indiana And South Dakota Kick Off Backlash Against LGBT Rights

CREDIT: AP Photo/Michael Conroy

Clashing protesters rally outside Wednesday's hearing on LGBT rights and religious liberties in the Indiana Senate Committee on Rules and Legislative Procedure.

With a tsunami of anti-LGBT bills being introduced in states across the country, this week saw the first movement on such legislation in Indiana and South Dakota — and the results do not bode well.

Despite the fact that Visit Indy reported this week that the backlash against last year’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) cost the city $60 million, Indiana lawmakers proceeded this week with advancing more anti-LGBT legislation. On Wednesday, the Senate Rules and Legislative Procedure Committee voted 7-5 to approve SB 344, which purports to create nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation, but which actually creates so many religious exemptions that the protections would be unenforceable. All that the bill offers transgender people is a study committee to consider protecting them in the future.

The vote was along party lines, with only Republicans supporting the bill. Interestingly, almost everyone who testified during Wednesday’s hearing opposed the bill, including conservatives, who argued that any nondiscrimination protection based on sexual orientation is bad policy, no matter how many religious exemptions may be attached. That included wedding vendors like Washington florist Barronelle Stutzman and Oregon baker Melissa Klein, who retold their sob stories about losing lawsuits after refusing service to same-sex couples, as well state conservative groups like the Indiana Family Institute and Advance America.

Republicans added a number of amendments that demonstrated their intention to allow the bill to discriminate. These included exemptions for adoption and pregnancy centers, exemptions for non-profit organizations not affiliated with a church that still have a religious mission, and a repeal to last year’s problematic RFRA, including the “fix” that ensured it could not be used to discriminate against LGBT people. When Democrats tried to amend the bill so it would provide full protections with no religious carveouts, the amendment was defeated.

LGBT groups like Freedom Indiana, Lambda Legal, and the Human Rights Campaign roundly condemned SB 344’s passage. The most that Sen. Karen Tallian (D) could say for the bill during the hearing was, “I really like the fact that this bill as amended has now set aside RFRA and added partial protections to some people, but I can’t support the rest of the bill that creates these exemptions.”

One small consolation was the defeat of SB 66 Wednesday morning. Nicknamed a “Super RFRA,” it would have strengthened last year’s RFRA to further ensure discrimination against LGBT was protected under state law.

While all eyes were on Indiana, however, South Dakota lawmakers also advanced a particularly troubling bill. The South Dakota House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly — 58-10 — to approve HB 1008, which prohibits transgender students from accessing school bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identities.

According to the bill, schools can provide transgender students some accommodations, including single-occupancy restrooms or “the controlled use of a restroom, locker room, or shower room that is designated for use by faculty.” They would still be ostracized from all other facilities, in flagrant violation of the Department of Education’s interpretation of Title IX’s sex nondiscrimination protections.

Freedom for All Americans and the Human Rights Campaign similarly condemned the bill for creating “a hostile and toxic climate in South Dakota’s education system for children who are transgender.”

The bill mirrors an effort started by Rep. Roger Hunt (R) last year to counter the South Dakota High School Activities Association’s policy allowing transgender students to play on the teams that match their genders. Hunt seemed to suggest that a trans athlete’s genitals should have to be examined before they would be allowed to participate in sports. He has introduced two other bills to specifically address these trans athlete concerns, HB 1111 and HB 1112, but they have not yet received a committee hearing.