INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Organizers of at least two major conventions set for Indianapolis have joined some business leaders in urging Republican Gov. Mike Pence to veto a religious objections bill that opponents say could provide legal cover for discrimination against gay people.
In a letter to Pence sent Wednesday, leaders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) warned the legislation was causing them to reconsider plans to hold their 6,000-person General Assembly in Indianapolis in 2017. The CEO of a gathering of gamers considered to be the city's largest annual convention also expressed concern about the bill, which the state Senate passed Tuesday.
Pence spokeswoman Kara Brooks said the governor has planned a private ceremony for Thursday to sign the measure, which would prohibit state and local laws that "substantially burden" the ability of people — including businesses and associations — to follow their religious beliefs. Indiana would be the first state to enact such a change this year among about a dozen states where such proposals have been introduced.
The expected bill signing comes just more than a week before NCAA men's Final Four games at Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis, but the college sports organization hasn't taken a position on the issue.
"We are examining the details of this bill, however, the NCAA national office is committed to an inclusive environment where all individuals enjoy equal access to events," the Indianapolis-based group said in a statement.
Supporters say discrimination concerns are overblown because the bill is modeled after a federal religious freedom law Congress passed in 1993 and similar laws are on the books in 19 states. However, the current political climate is far different than it was when most of those were approved because the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this year on whether gay marriage bans violate the Constitution.
Conservative groups say the Indiana measure merely seeks to prevent the government from compelling people to provide such things as catering or photography for same-sex weddings or other activities they find objectionable on religious grounds.
"I think you will find that, if you do your homework in it, this law is not going to allow you to discriminate against anyone else or anyone's rights in this country," GOP Indiana Senate President Pro Tem David Long said.
But the Republican mayor of Indianapolis said he believed the proposal would send the "wrong signal" for the city, and its tourism and convention agency raised concerns that it could lead some convention planners to regard Indiana as an unwelcoming place.
The Indianapolis chamber of commerce and Columbus-based engine maker Cummins Inc. are among business groups which have opposed the bill on grounds it could make it more difficult to attract top companies and employees.
Adrian Swartout, the CEO of the 50,000-person Gen Con gamers' convention, said the legislation could affect the group's decision to hold the major event in Indianapolis past 2020. He said it would have a "a direct negative impact on the state's economy."
Leaders of Disciples of Christ, a 400,000-person denomination based in Indianapolis, also said the bill could affect future commitments.
"We are particularly distressed at the thought that, should (the bill) be signed into law, some of our members and friends might not be welcome in Indiana businesses — might experience legally sanctioned bias and rejection once so common on the basis of race," they said in the letter.
Similar bills have been advancing this year in the Arkansas and Georgia legislatures. Last year, Mississippi enacted a religious objection law just weeks after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, vetoed a similar effort there amid criticism from major corporations.
Chris Gahl, a vice president of the Visit Indy tourism group, said it has been letting clients know about the other states with similar laws after the organization's board looked into the issue.
"We drew some comfort in knowing that cities we compete with daily, like Chicago, like San Antonio, like Nashville, have been able to navigate the waters and continue to grow tourism," he said.