Q&A: Freedom Indiana’s Chris Paulsen on LGBT Civil Rights

Should the state’s Civil Rights Law include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity? Freedom Indiana’s campaign manager certainly thinks so. Here’s why.
Contentious debate—and a national media firestorm—followed passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the final days of last year’s Indiana General Assembly session, when opponents such as Freedom Indiana and other groups interpreted the measure as sanctioning discrimination against the LGBT community. A last-minute legislative “fix”—which acknowledged LGBT protections passed in local communities—calmed nerves for a time. But it also set the stage for another fight playing out in the Assembly right now, as LGBT civil rights advocates and their supporters push for legislation that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s Civil Rights Law.

Chris Paulsen, formerly with Indiana Equality Action and now the campaign manager for Freedom Indiana, one of the organizations leading the effort, makes a case for why.

What does Freedom Indiana want to accomplish with this campaign?
We’re looking to update the existing Civil Rights Law to include gay and transgender Hoosiers. We’re just looking to add four words and a comma: “sexual orientation, gender identity.”

That seems simple enough.
Yes, seems very simple.

How is your role with Freedom Indiana different than what you were doing with Indiana Equality?
Freedom Indiana is a much more grassroots, larger organization. We have about 65,000 people on our email list, thousands of Facebook followers, things like that. We’re basically the grassroots organization that has constituents let their lawmakers know what changes they want, both with the Civil Rights Law and, in the past, with other issues. HJR-3 [the 2014 proposed state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage] was where we were founded from, then we rolled from the marriage fight, then we had to quickly respond to RFRA, which we weren’t planning on. Now we’re trying to make gay and transgender Hoosiers equal.

Is it safe to say you’re working with a higher profile now at Freedom Indiana, with more resources in terms of budget and support?
Yeah, definitely. The support was kind of an organic growth during HJR-3. [Freedom Indiana was] lucky to bring together a huge coalition of everyday Hoosiers who were interested in what we were doing, and we’ve retained those Hoosiers who are now interested in this. It’s definitely a much bigger group that we’re working with, much more attention paid right now, obviously. The media attention is larger, and people are more interested. Nationwide, it’s more in the public eye. I think that transfers here to Indiana.

In the past two General Assembly sessions, it seems Freedom Indiana was able to score some wins without a tremendous amount of direct influence on legislators.
Our role is the grassroots role. We let the people out in the state, in Hammond, or New Albany—places that don’t hear about what’s happening in Indianapolis every day—we let them know what’s going on and ask them to contact their legislators. It’s not necessarily us doing the contacting, but it’s definitely grassroots. It’s constituents calling their lawmakers to let them know that these issues are important to them. It’s not Freedom Indiana that wants to do the influencing. It’s the everyday constituents that need to be talking to their legislators. That’s what we’re good at—getting those two groups together so they hear each other.

Making supporters visible in front of the Statehouse, too—helping to organize rallies and marches that show real bodies out there on the street.
Right. That’s something that doesn’t happen with every issue. I think because it doesn’t happen with every issue, that it is more effective. When people show up at the Statehouse from those regions, from New Castle, or Richmond, or Terre Haute—from the far reaches—when they show up and say, “Hey, this really interests me, this really affects me, or my family, or a coworker, or someone I love,” I think that the lawmakers do take notice of that, because it doesn’t happen that often.

“It’s not a Republican or a Democrat issue. It’s a fairness issue. I think Hoosiers want to be known as fair, because we are fair.

Freedom Indiana faces a new challenge with this current campaign: In the past, the organization was able to rally opposition against unpopular measures, but now you’re trying to get something done instead of stopping something.
It is a different campaign. But we also know that, looking at the polling, the majority of Hoosiers agree with us. It’s just a matter of getting the word out that this is something we’re doing. Nationwide, it’s trending that way. I think once Hoosiers realize that it is currently legal to fire someone, or deny them housing, or deny them a meal because they’re gay or transgender—Hoosiers are normally friendly and fair people, and I don’t think that’s something that the average Hoosier would want to be known for, for discrimination. I think once we do the education and get the word out—even though it is in a sense a fight—I don’t think it’s that difficult.

The so-called “fix” to RFRA required the state to observe LGBT protections instituted in local communities. Did that measure not go far enough?
Those human-rights ordinances are great, but they’re very patchwork. They’re all different. There are different mechanisms for reporting, different ways you have to have hearings and things like that. If I drive from here to Columbus, Indiana, here in Indianapolis I’m covered, when I hit Greenwood I’m not, and then when I hit Columbus, I am again. It’s great that the people in those areas are covered, but we need something that covers every Hoosier.

To what extent have those local ordinances—in some cases advocated by Republican leaders—helped members of the General Assembly see that LGBT civil rights is something they can support?
I think that’s very important. Both Carmel and Columbus are fully Republican councils. There’s not one Democrat on their councils. I think it shows that it’s not a partisan issue, and we’re a nonpartisan organization. It’s not a Republican or a Democrat issue. It’s a fairness issue. I think Hoosiers want to be known as fair, because we are fair. The spotlight was glaring on us [after the passage of RFRA] because we were seen as unfair, and we need to show the world that Indiana is a fair place, and that’s how we want to be known.

Democrats in the Assembly seem solidly behind updating Indiana’s Civil Rights Law to include LGBT protections. There appears to be less-unanimous support among GOP lawmakers. How do you go about bringing reluctant Republicans around to Freedom Indiana’s position?
I think you’d be surprised by the number of Republicans who believe in fairness. Marriage is an issue that they felt spoke to religion. But most religions say “love thy neighbor,” and the Golden Rule and all that—that fairness is something that pretty much everyone believes in. I think you’d be surprised by the number of Republicans who are for fairness and who want Indiana to be seen as a fair state.

Freedom Indiana’s backing in the business community has to be important in influencing legislators, as well.
We’re here to talk about fairness and how everyone should be treated equally, but business does have a huge economic pull. It’s tough to get people to come from the East Coast or the West Coast to take these high-paying jobs when Indiana is seen as being a discriminatory state. We have the [RFRA] “fix,” but that’s really a temporary Band-Aid. And that’s tough to recruit high-dollar, high-demand talent when you’re seen as that. We’ve heard from our business partners that they have lost potential employees because of this, and I think that’s something that we really need to take a look at. We need Indiana to be as strong as possible, and to do that you have to attract the best. And it’s tough to attract the best from places that already have these laws on the books to come to a place that doesn’t.

One of Freedom Indiana’s biggest challenges isn’t just getting LGBT civil rights legislation passed, but legislation that, from the organization’s standpoint, goes far enough.
We’re not interested in compromise. We want full protections for both sexual orientation and gender identity. There is no compromise on fairness. That’s not something that we’re interested in. And basically, that’s what RFRA was about, leaving out public accommodation. We definitely don’t want to see RFRA 2 happen here. That’s bad for the state. We definitely will be pushing for protections—housing, employment, public accommodation—including gay and transgender Hoosiers.

Senate Democrats have introduced a bill that would add veterans as well as LGBT folks to the Civil Rights Law. Where does Freedom Indiana stand on adding vets?
Everybody should be treated equally, and if the vets want to be part of that, I think that’s great. I think that adding them doesn’t hurt anything at all. I think everybody should be covered.

Including veterans could also make it harder for some lawmakers to vote no.
It could.

Veterans are more difficult to demonize.
Right, and we have a huge number of gay and transgender vets, some of whom will be testifying for us. If they’re willing to lay down their lives for us, shouldn’t we at least serve them dinner here in the state?

Whom do you consider to be Freedom Indiana’s primary adversaries on the issue of LGBT civil rights?
You’ve already seen Eric Miller [founder and executive director of Advance America] and his “sneak attack” video, so obviously he’s engaged. We’ve seen Curt Smith [president of the Indiana Family Institute] and his group, and Micah Clark [executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana] and his group, at the Carmel hearings and the Columbus hearings [on local LGBT ordinances], so they are engaged also.

Do you think a lot of members in the Assembly take calls from them?
I don’t know how much they influence lawmakers. We’re just here to have constituents speak to their lawmakers. We want lawmakers to hear from everyday Hoosiers. I don’t know how effective the opponents’ message is any more. They see the same polls we do, that Americans and Hoosiers are going away from their stances and are for fairness. I’m sure it’s a tough position to be in to know that you’re losing your base.

Ashley Shuler contributed to this article. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Read an opposing viewpoint from the Indiana Pastors Alliance’s Ron Johnson.