Facing Uproar, Indiana Revises Anti-Gay Bill

A week after the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was signed into Indiana law, the legislature has passed and Gov. Mike Pence on April 2 signed a revised law designed to prevent the law from being used to allow discrimination, including specific protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. 

A rapidly expanding national furor over the law brought condemnation from companies ranging from technology firms like Salesforce.com and Apple to pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co., as well as the national and local media, musicians and entertainers, professional and collegiate sports leagues and the Indiana Pacers basketball team, and of course the meetings and convention industry. A number of companies cancelled meetings in the state and threatened to pull conventions out of the state, among them Indiana's largest show, Gen Con, a gaming convention that attracts 56,000 to the Indianapolis' Indiana Convention Center every year. 

As the largest convention destination in the state, Indianapolis was hardest hit by the growing boycott, despite quick condemnation of the law by its mayor and a long and hard-earned reputation for hospitality. On Wednesday, before the RFRA Clarification Bill passed, The Kiwanis International told the Indianapolis Business Journal that the controversy was cutting as much as 30 percent off its expected attendance at the Kiwanis International 2015 Convention in June, which also celebrates the service club's centennial.

"We have opposed this bill since February, as we were concerned as we were concerned that it would cause a misperception," says Chris Gahl, vice president of marketing and communications of Visit Indy, the Indianapolis convention and visitors bureau. "We are supportive of the amendment that passed yesterday, as it is in alignment with the city of Indianapolis' human rights ordinance, which has been on our books since 2006. Coupled with the state ordinance, this protects against discrimination, specifically based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We are confident it is inclusive and helps showcase Hoosier hospitality."

Beyond that, Gahl says the meetings and conventions industry was vital in getting the RFRA amended. "We were happy to see that ASAE had reached out directly to the governor and state to express their concerns," he says. "We heard from many of our convention customers, both annual as well as business on the books this year, and they also reached out to the governor to express their concerns, and that really did help, we believe, sway opinion and ultimately help amend the bill -- specifically Gen Con, our largest convention of the year, their time and attention was instrumental."

In fact, Visit Indy's involvement in a political issue was a rarity, Gahl says. "In the last decade there have only been two times where we have gotten political on issues at our statehouse," he notes. "The first was supporting $1 billion being earmarked for the building of a new stadium and the doubling in size of the Indiana Convention Center. This would be the second. We don't have a lobbyist. We stay politically neutral 99 percent of the time. It was only because we were confident that our customers and visitors would have a concern that we raised our hand for this one."

As for the RFRA Clarification Bill's impact on the meetings and events business, only time will tell. There is some concern that the RFRA revisions do not go far enough in protecting LGBT residents and visitors. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a national LGBT rights organization, posted a blog on Thursday saying the legislation limits "the damage of the state's new Religious Freedom Restoration Act but [falls] far short of providing a full solution." Specifically, it claims, the law only provides protections in cities (such as Indianapolis) that have anti-discrimination laws on the books protecting LGBT people. 

While calling the amended bill "a first step," in a statement posted on its website this week, the organizers of Gen Con added, "the amended law will reflect Indianapolis' own longstanding human rights ordinance which includes protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. With this amendment, no one can refuse you service under RFRA. Period."

It continued, "Given the great response by Visit Indy, the Indy Chamber [of commerce], [Indianapolis] Mayor Greg Ballard, and the businesses of Indianapolis, we believe that all attendees will continue to receive the warm response that we have enjoyed for more than a decade. We won't stop pushing for more diversity and inclusiveness in Indiana, and we will include new concepts and partnerships into our preparations for Gen Con 2015."