Indiana Governor Backs LGBTQ-Inclusive Hate Crime Law, Breaks With Predecessor Mike Pence

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb broke with predecessor Mike Pence on Monday by confirming support for a fully LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime law in an email to INTO.

Holcomb first signaled his support for a statewide hate crime bill last week following an anti-Semitic attack on a synagogue in central Indiana. In late July, Congregation Shaarey Tefilla of Carmel — located a half hour’s drive from Indianapolis — was targeted with Nazi graffiti. A brick shed was spray-painted over with a Third Reich flag bookended by a pair of iron crosses.

Currently, Indiana is just one of five states, including Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Wyoming, without any kind of hate crime law on the book. Although Holcomb had long declined to weigh on the debate, the conservative changed tune last week in a statement condemning the vandalism.

“No law can stop evil, but we should be clear that our state stands with the victims and their voices will not be silenced,” the conservative governor claimed in a statement released on July 30. “For that reason it is my intent that we get something done this next legislative session, so Indiana can be one of 46 states with hate crime legislation — and not one of five states without it.”

While Holcomb vowed to work with “lawmakers, legal minds, corporate leaders and citizens of all stripes” to ensure the passage of a hate crime bill, his initial statement notably did not specify whether LGBTQ people would be included in his advocacy.

This distinction matters when examining Holcomb’s record.

Prior to being tapped by former Indiana governor Pence to fill the gubernatorial chair in his absence, the conservative politician once claimed LGBTQ rights are “not an issue [he’s] focused on at all.” In a 2016 interview, Holcomb claimed it was the state’s job to “protect religious liberties and freedoms,” while “municipalities can pass local ordinances.”

On the issue of Indiana’s 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Holcomb said the state had “gotten through that.” The law, which allowed people of faith to discriminate against LGBTQ people, was amended to excise “religious liberty” clauses following a $60 million boycott.

But a spokesperson for Holcomb confirmed the governor’s support for an Indiana hate crime law would include protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“The governor has indicated he supports legislation that protects — not excludes — all Hoosiers,” Rachel Hoffmeyer, digital communications director for the governor’s office, said in a statement to INTO. “This reflects the governor’s policy statement on affirmative action and workplace harassment prevention, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity.”

That position reflects a dramatic shift from the previous occupant of the governor’s office.

During his time in Congress, Pence fought against attaching a hate crime measure to a military policy bill. In 2009, he was one of 131 House Republicans to vote against expanding federal hate crime laws to include sexual orientation as a protected characteristic. The conservative said that, if passed, the legislation would curtail the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

“It is just simply wrong to use a bill designed to support our troops to reverse the very freedoms for which they fight,” he claimed at the time.

While Pence condemned the attack on Congregation Shaarey Tefilla in a tweet, all available evidence indicates his former state continues to bear the vice president’s imprint. Conservatives in the Indiana General Assembly killed a hate crime bill along similar lines earlier this year.

Sponsored by Republican Sue Glick, Senate Bill 418 was buried by conservatives in a series of amendments designed to smother it. One proposal would have removed gender identity from the text. Another would have offered protections based upon “characteristic, belief, practice or association,” meaning that attacks on Trump supporters could also qualify as a hate crime.

Supporters declared SB 418 dead just weeks into the 2018 legislative session, after Chairman Mike Young declined to call for a vote on SB 418 in the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee in January. Lawmakers “could not reach consensus,” as Glick judiciously concluded.

Advocates say the passage of LGBTQ-inclusive legislation in future years is critical in ensuring that all categories of people are protected under Indiana law.

Hate crimes target people because of their membership in a despised group,” claimed Lambda Legal Law and Policy Director Jennifer C. Pizer in a statement shared exclusively with INTO. “The point is to intimidate—to instill fear. LGBTQ people continue to be targeted at a wildly disproportionate rate.”

Pizer further noted the sharp increase in attacks on queer and trans individuals since Trump took office 18 months ago. In that time period, LGBTQ community centers in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, and Wisconsin have been vandalized, shot at, and pelted with rocks. A trans volunteer at Washington, D.C.’s Casa Ruby was attacked.

Meanwhile, rainbow crosswalks in both the U.S. and Canada have been routinely spraypainted over with graffiti.

“Given today’s dangerously rising tide of intolerance and extremism nationally, this news of a potential sea change in Indiana leadership’s policy focus couldn’t come at a better time,” Pizer concluded.

Even despite the wave of anti-LGBTQ attacks under Trump, just 17 states (and D.C.) boast hate crimes laws which enumerate protections on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity. In 13 states, transgender people are not included in statewide hate crime codes.

Advocacy organizations claim that must change.

“Anyone who is attacked — especially if it’s simply because of who they are or whom they love — deserves justice under the law,” claimed Nick Morrow, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, in comments emailed to INTO. “This should be something we all can agree on, regardless of political affiliation.”

“It would be an encouraging step forward for Indiana to update its hate crimes laws to match the federal standard,” Morrow added, “ensuring that those affected by bias-motivated crime can receive their due justice.”

Indiana lawmakers expect hate crime legislation to be reintroduced in the 2019 legislative session. Supporters of these bills claim they are a deterrent against violence targeting minority groups — including people of color and non-Christians — by allowing judges to enforce harsher penalties against individuals convicted of bias attacks.

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