INDIANAPOLIS — In past years, when contentious social issues arose in the General Assembly, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce — the state’s most influential business lobby — stepped away from the flight. But an August poll showing the rapidly changing opinions of Hoosiers on LGBT issues helped change that stance.
The private poll taken by the state chamber showed a 59-percent majority of voters in conservative Indiana supported the idea of adding protections to the state’s civil rights law for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers.
As critical: Less than one-third of those polled opposed the idea. Earlier this month, the Chamber’s 100-member board — representing about 24,000 businesses around Indiana — voted to endorse a measure that would protect people from being fired, denied housing or turned away from a business because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In doing so, the chamber pushed its longtime Republican allies in the Legislature to move forward on the issue. It also afforded them the opportunity to recast the case from a social issues fight into an economic one.
Chamber president Kevin Brinegar said at the time: “This action will increase the state’s future business competitiveness in the recruitment, attraction and retention of talent, as well as enhance respect for all employers and employees.”
His statement sets the tone of the chamber’s lobbying efforts in the 2016 legislative session, which begins in January.
Last week, the chamber announced that getting the Republican-controlled General Assembly to pass an LGBT civil rights law was among its top priorities — on par with more road funding and fairer tax assessment of commercial properties.
Cam Carter, the chamber’s vice president for economic development, said the board felt strongly that the state needed to take a big step to repair the Indiana brand that was damaged earlier this year.
Nationally, Indiana suffered an image blow after Gov. Mike Pence signed a “religious liberty” law — later amended — that critics saw as a license to discriminate.
Carter said the damage done makes it especially hard for Indiana businesses struggling to replace their aging workforce with young, highly skilled employees who put a premium on diversity.
“That’s a very large demographic coming into the workforce,” Carter pointed out.
Their perceptions of Indiana are critical, especially for the state’s biggest employers. They’re recruiting from around the nation — and the world — for talent at a time when Indiana ranks in the bottom five states for the percent of adults with a college degree.
“We need to get this right in order to secure our economic prosperity,” Carter said. “The future workforce and our future competitiveness is at stake here.”
Joining the push to see LGBT rights as an economic issue are two new business coalitions:
- Tech for Equality — representing the state’s technology sector, it was started by former Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle, who worked as an aide to Pence’s gubernatorial predecessor, Mitch Daniels.
- Indiana Competes — an alliance of businesses initiated by the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co.
Both coalitions echo the Chamber message: Discrimination — even the perception of it — is bad for business.
Bob Goodman, a jewelry store owner and member of the Zionsville Chamber of Commerce, was one of the first members of Indiana Competes. He supported the decision by the Republican-controlled Zionsville Town Council to pass a local non-discrimination ordinance that includes LGBT protections.
“Discrimination is bad — period,” Goodman said. “But it’s really bad for a retail business like mine. My business is dependent on people feeling welcome when they walk through my door.”
Supporters of expanding the state’s civil rights law reject the opposition argument that adding protection for sexual orientation and gender identity will impede on religious liberty.
They note that churches and other faith-based organizations, including schools, are already exempt from the employment nondiscrimination laws currently in place in Indiana.
That’s not enough for some.
On the Legislature’s ceremonial Organization Day, Senate Republican leaders filed a bill that would expand LGBT protections in state law while carving out special exemptions for businesses with fewer than four full-time employees.
The bill allows those small businesses to refuse to serve same-sex couples, for example, who are seeking wedding-related services. Monica Boyer, a religious-conservative blogger and political activist with the Indiana Religious Freedom Alliance, helped organize a protest at the Statehouse on Organization Day. She objects to the bill, saying the carve-out for small businesses is insufficient.
“If I’m a person of faith and I own a business and I have four employees and I want to add a fifth one, I have to choose government or God,” Boyer told the Indianapolis Star.
Bill opponent Micah Clark, of the American Family Association of Indiana, rejects the argument that Indiana’s economic future is dependent on passing an LGBT rights bill.
He also dismisses the notion that the state’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act damaged the state’s business climate. He points to a recent Fortune magazine ranking that put Indiana near the top in “Best States for Business” rankings.
“Once again, contrary to the media narrative, Indiana is doing very well post RFRA,” Clark wrote on Boyer’s blog.
Such fights are playing out across the nation. At least 21 states currently have laws protecting people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Another 10 states are wrestling with the issue, considering various bills that would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from being fired, denied housing or turned away from a business because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
That includes Florida, where the legislature is set to take up an LGBT rights bill backed by the state’s major corporate entities, including Walt Disney World Resort.
The name of the bill: The Florida Competitive Workforce Act.
Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI newspapers. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.