This was never going to be pretty.
But Hoosiers still had reason to think that after last year’s self-inflicted religious freedom debacle, State House Republicans would understand the damage they’d done and set about trying to shore up Indiana’s tattered reputation.
Well, think again.
At this writing, not one, but two Republican senators have proposed legislation they say will “fix” last year’s cobbled-together embarrassment, better known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
You may recall that Gov. Pence signed RFRA last year, flanked by a smiling who’s who of Indiana rightwingers. They thought they’d pulled a fast one on the legalization of gay marriage by allowing merchants offended by the idea of doing business with sinners (also known as gay customers) the freedom to turn those sinners away.
In other words, Republicans used what they called “religious freedom” as a way of making sure gay people remained second class citizens.
It didn’t take long for word of this constitutional sleight of hand to go viral. Indiana’s attempt to disenfranchise the LGBT community became a national story — and a national embarrassment. The state’s business leaders were incensed, even some Republican politicians, like Indy’s Mayor Ballard, came forward to try and salvage our collective reputation. The Indianapolis Star
ran a front page headline imploring Republicans to FIX THIS NOW.
A lot of legislative hurrying and scurrying ensued. Soon an amended version of the RFRA was brought forward, a patchwork job that pleased no one, but gave the impression on first whiff that the disgraced majorities in both chambers were sorry to have created such a commotion.
And that, it turns out, is why it appears Indiana is about to step in it again.
Instead of coming to grips with the fact that their religious intolerance painted Indiana as being prejudiced, backward, and not terribly bright, Republicans seem to think their RFRA gaffe was merely a case of bad timing, or misinterpretation, or unfortunate public relations.
So now, rather than scrapping the thing and simply backing comprehensive civil rights legislation that would protect all Hoosiers, no matter how they identify or whom they love, we see a pair of new bills that still appear to be more concerned about protecting public discrimination in certain circumstances than affirming broad-based civil rights.
These bills may be well-intentioned, but they miss the point of what happened last year. Indiana didn’t just look bad, it was caught red-handed, celebrating a form of bigotry. As if that wasn’t damaging enough, this also happened to be a form of bigotry that has been roundly discredited through one of the most lightning-like social movements ever seen.
So the state not only seems unwelcoming, it appears terminally out of step. These latest attempts to paper things over will only compound this double whammy.
Democrats (yes, there are a few still standing) seem to get this. As Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane told the Star
: “Only the simplest, strongest message will accomplish what is needed,..You cannot compromise on equal rights. Just a little bit of discrimination, as proposed in Senate Bill 100, will not suffice. Allowing even more discrimination, as SB 344 permits, is derailing the conversation on equal rights."
But isn’t that what Republicans have wanted all along?