INDIANAPOLIS - A prominent Indiana business leader is voicing concern that Gov. Mike Pence's newly revealed stance prioritizing religious freedoms over LGBT rights will not help "close the book" on a tumultuous period that thrust the state to the center of a culture war and threatened to harm its image.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Indiana Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kevin Brinegar said business leaders hoped the first-term Republican would use his State of the State address to announce support for measures before the GOP-controlled Legislature that would provide statewide protections for anyone fired from a job, denied service, or evicted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Instead, Pence prioritized religious freedom over rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and showed little retreat from his stance during an uproar last March over a religious objections law, which critics charged would sanction discrimination against gay people on religious grounds. Lawmakers approved a "fix" seven days later, but supporters of LGBT rights have pushed them to go further.
"We don't take lightly the idea of giving people more reason to sue businesses, but we think it's the 21st Century and the time has come to provide these protections," Brinegar said Friday. "We need to close the book on the ... issue, which some would say was a debacle."
The religious objections law drew unwanted and mostly negative attention to Indiana, prompting businesses interests, including the NCAA, to raise the possibility of relocating events and conventions elsewhere.
In the days before last week's State of the State speech, Pence heightened expectations on all sides by indicating he would end months of silence on the issue of LGBT protections. The issue sharply divides the Republican Party, driving a wedge between social conservatives and the business establishment.
"We were hoping for a positive and definitive statement supporting expanded protections for sexual preference and gender identity. We didn't hear that," Brinegar said.
Pence says he abhors discrimination, but vowed not to support any bill that "diminishes the religious freedom of Hoosiers or interferes with the constitutional rights of our citizens to live out their beliefs in worship, service or work."
The remarks were warmly received by evangelicals who make up his traditional voter base, at a time when Pence is facing a tough campaign this year for re-election. But it was a let-down for gay-rights supporters and a coalition of business interests - including Cummins Inc. and Eli Lilly and Co. - who say the debate makes Indiana look intolerant and diminishes their ability to recruit talented workers.
Several measures before the Senate seek to address the issue this spring. One bill would grant protections to LGBT people while offering exemptions for clergy, small businesses and religious organizations. Another would do the same but excludes transgender people.
The governor believes religious freedoms are clearly elaborated in the state constitution and has publicly questioned whether those freedoms can be reconciled with LGBT rights. He has not proposed any legislation of his own on the matter.
"Governor Pence made his position clear Tuesday night. He will give careful consideration to any legislation the General Assembly sends him but it must be consistent with the Indiana Constitution," Pence spokesman Matt Lloyd said.
Meanwhile, former House Speaker John Gregg, his Democratic challenger, supports LGBT rights and has criticized Pence over the issue.
Brinegar acknowledged LGBT rights present challenges for Republicans, but he wants lawmakers to find a compromise "so that we get this issue in our rearview mirror and send a clear message to the outside world."
He added that the chamber of commerce supports lawmakers who push the organization's agenda and has sought to unseat those who hindered it. He cautioned, though, that LGBT rights aren't the group's only priority.
Republican Senate President Pro Tempore David Long said he hopes the bills meet the governor's requirements. But GOP House Speaker Brian Bosma was less optimistic.
"It does make passage more difficult because I'm not certain that there is a solution on the table that meets the requirements the governor indicated he was looking for," Bosma said.