Under pressure, House panel quickly removes controversial provision from an unrelated bill.
INDIANAPOLIS — Responding to a public outcry a day earlier, an Indiana House committee on Tuesday nixed a controversial proposal that would have allowed some state contractors to discriminate against employees based on religion.
"I didn't quite understand the firestorm it would create," Rep. Eric Turner, the provision's author, told the House Ways and Means Committee.
The committee narrowly approved the provision on Monday, slipping it into an unrelated bill and quickly stirring controversy on social media.
Within a few hours, House Speaker Brian Bosma announced the measure would be sent back to Ways and Means for further discussion. By Tuesday morning, the panel quickly decided to remove it.
The flare-up unexpectedly thrust Indiana into a battle raging across the country over the rights of religiously conservative businesses. In Arizona, lawmakers have approved a measure that would allow businesses with strongly held religious beliefs to deny service to gays and lesbians, and two cases are pending before the U.S. Supreme Court in which religious business owners want their companies to be exempt from providing employee insurance coverage for contraception.
In Indiana, the change Monday to Senate Bill 367, a property tax bill, would have allowed any school, college, or religious institution affiliated with a church to make employment decisions based on religion, even if those organizations have a contract with the state.
As written, the provision would have had broad implications, said Robert Katz, an Indiana University law professor who teaches on law and religion.
"It would create a right to discriminate on the basis of religion for any position, even if it has nothing to do with the organization's religious mission," Katz said. "This could create a religious test for janitors."
The provision was proposed by Turner, R-Cicero, who also authored the contentious constitutional same-sex marriage ban that has dominated the 2014 legislative session.
That measure, known as House Joint Resolution 3, was approved last week, but only after changes that will prevent it from going to voters in the fall.
The delay upset many social conservatives.
Bosma said Monday's measure legalizing some religious discrimination was intended to address a contracting issue at Indiana Wesleyan University.
The state recently rejected a longstanding workforce training contract with the Christian university after a lawyer with the attorney general's office determined language allowing it to hire in part based on religion violated state law.
But opponents of the measure said it went far beyond that narrow purpose. They also criticized the way in which it was introduced.
"I don't think we should be encouraging people to be discriminated against because of their religion," said Rep. Cherrish Pryor, D-Indianapolis, who voted against the measure. "It's totally unrelated to property tax matters."
Conservative advocacy groups, however, cheered the provision.
"We believe this is a common-sense reinforcement of both the U.S. and Indiana constitutional safeguards of religious liberty for those engaged in commerce with the State of Indiana," said Curt Smith of the Indiana Family Institute. "As recent Obamacare cases show, deeply held religious convictions are being challenged as inappropriate guides in business conduct."
The House Ways and Means Committee passed the provision by 9-8 vote on Monday, with all Republicans in attendance voting for the measure except one. It was then forwarded to the full House before Bosma turned it back.
Contributing: The Associated Press