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INDIANAPOLIS – Gay rights advocates are hoping to parlay the momentum from their legislative victories in Indiana and Arkansas this week into further expanding legal protections for gays and lesbians in those states and others.
Facing widespread pressure, including from big businesses such as Apple and Wal-Mart, lawmakers in Indiana and Arkansas rolled back their states' new religious objections laws, which critics said could be used to discriminate against gays. Amid the uproar, the Republican governors of Michigan and South Dakota urged their own legislatures to extend anti-discrimination protections to gays.
Twenty-nine states currently don't include protections for gays and lesbians in their non-discrimination laws, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. But the Indiana and Arkansas laws, along with court rulings or legislatures legalizing same-sex marriage in 37 states and an expected U.S. Supreme Court decision on gay marriage this year, are fueling efforts to change that as the 2016 elections approach.
"We're not going to let any of these people off the hot seat," said Kathy Sarris, co-founder of the gay-rights group Indiana Equality Action. "This ultimately is going to happen in Indiana."
Most of the states without sexual orientation protections are in the South or the Plains, which tend to be more conservative. As public opinion has become more supportive of same-sex marriage and other gay rights in recent years, many businesses say such protections factor into their decisions about expansions and help them attract top employees.
Arkansas state Rep. Warwick Sabin, a Democrat from Little Rock, said the issue isn't going away.
"Other states are moving ahead of us and Arkansas is being left in the dust. We need to make an affirmative statement about our values as a state, and I know that the vast majority of Arkansans believe in fairness and opportunity for all of its citizens," he said.
Indiana's Republican-controlled Legislature took a first step by adding language to its new religious objections law stating that service providers can't use the law as a legal defense for refusing to provide goods, services, facilities or accommodations based on sexual orientation, gender identity and other factors. It is now the first Indiana state law that explicitly mentions sexual orientation and gender identity.
Arkansas' amended law only addresses actions by the government, not by businesses or individuals. The law's supporters say the changes would prevent businesses from using it to deny services to individuals, even though it doesn't include specific anti-discrimination language similar to Indiana's law.
Gay rights proponents want Arkansas to go further, though, and are trying to build support for adding sexual orientation to the protected statuses covered by the state's civil rights laws. The state's attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, last week approved the wording of a proposed ballot measure that would add such protections, clearing the way for supporters to begin gathering the signatures needed to get it on the November 2016 ballot.
"Today, LGBT Arkansans are still unequal, and today's battle points toward a broader struggle ahead — a fight where full and complete equality for all Arkansans that cannot be undermined is the only acceptable outcome," Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT rights group, said in a statement after Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed that state's law.
Hutchinson, meanwhile, has left open the possibility of issuing an executive order that would prohibit workplace discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people at state agencies.
Similar debates are going on elsewhere. In North Dakota on Thursday the Republican-controlled Legislature voted down a measure that would have prohibited discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation in the areas of housing and employment. Gov. Jack Dalrymple rebuked lawmakers, saying such discrimination wasn't acceptable.
In Michigan, meanwhile, GOP Gov. Rick Snyder warned legislators that he would veto a religious objections bill unless they also sent him a measure that would extend anti-discrimination protections to gays. He cited the Indiana outcry in making his warning.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and fellow Republicans maintained that the state's religious objections law never sanctioned discrimination against anyone. They said considering changes to the state's civil rights law was too major of a policy change to take up with less than a month left in the legislative session.
State Senate President David Long acknowledged "it's probably likely" that extending anti-discrimination laws to cover sexual orientation will be on next year's agenda.
"You can see that this discussion has been elevated in Indiana and it's an important one," Long said.
Some gay-rights supporters say the push for religious freedom laws proposed in about a dozen states this year amounts to a consolation prize for conservatives dismayed over the legalization of same-sex marriages across much of the country.
Some conservative activists have a different take.
Eric Miller, the executive director of an Indiana group, Advance America, called the national outcry over the state's law an "orchestrated effort of misinformation" led by those pushing for "government recognition, government approval, adding to our civil-rights laws protections for sexual orientation and gender identity."
DeMillo reported from Little Rock, Arkansas.