After Twitter Debate, Ind. Kills Proposal to Allow Religious Groups to Make Religion-Based Hiring Decisions

Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma rejected a proposal to allow religious groups with state contracts to make hiring decisions based upon religion.

The proposal, which was placed into a property tax bill, S.B. 367, would have allowed religious groups with state contracts to use religion as a basis for employment decisions. A Muslim organization with a state contract, for instance, could decide to only hire Muslims, or a Christian college could decide to only hire Christians.

The provision was intended to address a contract issue with Indiana Wesleyan University. The language was added to the bill by Indiana state Rep. Eric Turner (R-Cicero), who thought the measure would be noncontroversial.

A debate erupted on Twitter and other social media outlets, though, as the provision apparently became conflated with a controversial religious freedom bill in Arizona. Opponents of that bill argue it was designed by anti-gay bigots to deny public services to gays.

Only a few hours after the bill was introduced, Bosma sent the bill back to the Ways and Means Committee for further review. That committee then removed the language from the bill on Tuesday.

"There were concerns that it had complications beyond the Indiana Wesleyan contracting," Bosma said.

The state had canceled a workforce training contract with IWU after a lawyer in the attorneys general office said the contract violated state law because the contract allows IWU, a Christian university, to take religion into account in hiring decisions.

IWU argues that allowing faith-based schools to make faith-based hiring decisions would make Indiana law consistent with federal law.

"It's just like a church. If you don't have a right to hire with a faith commensurate to [yours], sooner or later it's not going to look like much of a church. We're trying to maintain the same thing with our Christian university," Neil Rush, IWU's director of risk management, told The Associated Press.

Ken Falk, chief legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, argued that religious groups should only be allowed to take religion into account when hiring for positions that have religious duties.

"The question is, what does it mean to amend Indiana law to, in essence, allow discrimination on the grounds of religion?" he said. "Whereas that might make sense if you're talking about someone who has religious duties or even tangential religious duties, if, in fact, this law goes even further than that you have to wonder, why are we narrowing people's rights?"

In a similar 2011 U.S. Supreme Court case related to federal law, Hosanna-Tabor vs. EEOC, the court ruled unanimously, 9-0, that it is up to the religious group, not the government, to decide which of its positions should require adherence to the group's religious claims.