‘Protecting LGBT Civil Rights a Must After RFRA,’ Says GOP Strategist Megan Robertson

The veteran party organizer and former Freedom Indiana campaign manager breaks down the state’s recent history of culture-war political debates, and why she thinks our Civil Rights Law needs updating now.
For the third year in a row, the issue of LGBT rights takes center stage in the Indiana General Assembly.

In 2014, the legislature debated sending a proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage to voter referendum, then, last year, passed the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which opponents interpreted as permitting discrimination against the LGBT community.

Now, LGBT activists and their allies want the state’s Civil Rights Law updated to include sexual orientation and gender identity, alongside existing protections for race, religion, sex, disability, national origin, and ancestry. Yesterday, the Senate advanced SB 344, a bill that would repeal RFRA, provide civil-rights protections based on sexual orientation—but not gender identity—and include some exceptions for religious objectors.

A political strategist who has worked on several successful campaigns for Republican candidates in the state, Megan Robertson served as campaign manager for Freedom Indiana’s effort to scuttle the proposed marriage amendment in 2014. And she supports full LGBT civil rights in 2016.

How would you handicap the chances of LGBT civil rights legislation passing in this session?
Every time somebody has said they know what’s going to happen in the Statehouse, they are always wrong, because it is a crazy process with lots of winding roads, and you don’t really know how it’s going to end up, or where people are going to end up. It’s often said that it is tougher to get someone to take action than getting them to just do nothing. It’s harder to get someone to vote for something as opposed to voting against something. I think there’s some truth to that.

I also think this issue of discrimination and ensuring that people are treated fairly is probably the easiest message and the thing that people most agree with. On marriage, people were split. But with [the civil-rights issue], literally right now in Indiana, you can get fired because you’re gay. Most people think that’s wrong. A lot of people think it’s already illegal. Once they find out it’s not, folks seem to get on board with, “Yeah, that should be illegal.” If you’re renting a house, someone can throw you out of that house if they find out that you’re gay. Most people think that’s not okay. Literally right now, in the majority of the state, if somebody wanted to hang up a sign that says “No Gays,” or whatever other term they decided to use, they could do that and be completely within the law. Those are really easy to explain, and folks get really upset when they realize that could happen.

The scenarios you just described sound like segregation.
Right, for any other group. I think [opposing discrimination] is the thing that people actually agree with the most, it’s just a matter of getting the message out there. But it does take a little more effort to get someone to do something about it.

The good part about all of this is that what we saw as the most successful in getting a legislator to change their mind or to do something was direct contact from a constituent. They do like to hear from businesses—businesses have a strong voice, and local businesses have a particularly strong voice, because they’re both constituents and businesses—but hearing from people that you represent is by far the most compelling reason for legislators to take action.

The RFRA “fix,” passed in response to controversy over the original bill, seemed to show that a lot of legislators were willing to modify their positions on LGBT civil rights.
It sounds pretty harmless when someone says it’s a religious-freedom bill, right? Maybe everybody didn’t pay as much attention to it. Some thought that this was being blown out of proportion, and it wasn’t intended to do the things that people said. I would argue that the people who were pushing it very much intended for it to do things that it may or may not have been able to do, but they certainly wanted it to do some things that people found very objectionable.

There were warnings that there could be some backlash, that [RFRA] wasn’t great for business, and they said, “Oh, you guys are crazy, you just listen to liberals too much,” or whatever it might be. And it turned out that there was backlash. People did become very upset.

We ended up on the national stage in a way that obviously wasn’t flattering. We always talk about Hoosiers being fair people, and Hoosier hospitality. And those things are all true. It’s just that sometimes things can get done that turn that perception on its head. I think everybody was really disappointed by that. Of course there was tremendous national pressure. You had the Final Four coming into town, all these concerts, every national sports broadcaster was going to be here, the media was here ready to talk about it, and companies were saying that they didn’t know if they were going to keep their business here.

Public demonstrations opposing RFRA seemed to bring some of that pressure to bear on the Assembly as well.
Freedom Indiana, as soon as [RFRA] got to the House, had hundreds of people at the Statehouse every time the bill was discussed before it got passed. It shouldn’t have been too surprising that there were some people that were going to be unhappy about it. We had 300 folks in the red Freedom Indiana shirts waving signs in the hallway.

But I would say that it was very much a grassroots movement that was bigger than Freedom Indiana. A lot of people heard about it because of Freedom Indiana, but that kind of outrage that you saw, with 3,000 people showing up on Saturday for a rally that was planned on Thursday—that’s very hard for a group to completely claim credit for. It was an organic, grassroots movement. I think that just goes to show how passionate people are about ensuring folks aren’t discriminated against.

With majorities in the House and the Senate, Republican legislators are still holding the cards on the civil-rights issues.
I would guess that if any legislation comes out, it’s going to be authored by a Republican. If something comes out, then it’s either because leadership is allowing it to come out, or leadership is helping it come out, however they decide to approach it. And I would assume that would be done by a Republican.

As a member of the Republican Party, I think it would be very important for the Republicans to step up and do this. Not only was Indiana’s brand severely damaged [by RFRA], the Republican Party’s brand in Indiana was really hurt by all of this. For the Republican Party, I hope somebody stands up and leads, and that they’re the ones who push this through. Whether it’s a Democrat-authored bill or a Republican-authored bill, you’ve got to have Republican votes to get it done, anyway.

In some ways, the debate over LGBT civil rights is being characterized as the religious versus the nonreligious.
One of the things that not everybody knows about me: I graduated from Anderson University, a Church of God school. When I was a kid, my dad was ordained in the Baptist church. I spent more time in church during the week than a lot of places, because basically if the doors were open, I was there. I went to a Christian school from seventh grade through my senior year. I respect people who have deeply held religious beliefs, and I understand it, having lived it for a huge portion of my life. I think that people can be led to different conclusions by their religion. But at the same time, I don’t think that anybody’s religion—if they discriminate against a person, that somehow they should be able to do that.

What’s the best way to sell the need for LGBT civil rights protections to average Hoosiers?
I think the average voter doesn’t understand why it’s a question. What needs to be done for them is to get the issue out there so that they understand the issue and the real-life implications of it, like the sign that says, “No Gays Allowed,” or a person being fired from their job just because they happen to be gay. [Voters] need to hear about that, that it’s something that can happen, and then hopefully [LGBT advocates can] motivate them to take action, either by making it simple to take action, or by talking about it in a way that makes them passionate about it.

With Freedom Indiana, you helped prevent the marriage amendment from advancing.
We kept it from going into our state’s constitution before the Supreme Court made any rulings. I think it was important for Indiana not to be taking that kind of a position against gay marriage that late in the game by adding it to our constitution. I think it would have been a really negative thing, and probably wouldn’t have looked very good in the RFRA debacle that we had no idea was barreling towards us.

Did being a Republican help you counter perceptions that Freedom Indiana’s campaign against the marriage amendment was a liberal or Democratic cause?
I do think that you’re not going to get anything accomplished in the legislature without having Republican support. I certainly think it made sense to have a campaign manager that could say, “I’m a Republican, I’m against HJR-3, and it’s okay to be a Republican and be against it. It doesn’t make you not a Republican.” I think it did take away that argument right off the bat.

I think it also made a lot of sense that I was part of the community. I’m a lesbian, so it made a lot of sense for it to be somebody who would be directly impacted by this kind of legislation passing. I like to think I’m reasonably effective at running a campaign, but having a Republican, and having a lesbian, and having a woman running the campaign that is part of the community—I was a good fit to reach out to a lot of different communities that can sometimes feel left out of the process or left out of gay politics.

To what extent are competing agendas between pro-business and social-conservative constituencies creating fractures within the party?
All of these things have brought on a conversation within the Republican Party of what our priorities should be and what our focus should be. In my opinion, for the most part, the business community is tied to the folks like me, who are Republicans because of small government, and taxes, and personal responsibility—it’s not like we’re trying to push some pro-gay agenda for special rights. It’s really that we just don’t want to do things that don’t bring people together. Let’s focus on things that move our state forward, that help our economic development and get people working, and on the general business of running the state—having balanced budgets and good infrastructure and those kinds of issues.

From my view, the social conservatives who really want this legislation are the ones that keep bringing these issues up. If it were up to me, we would never be talking about these issues in the legislature, because we wouldn’t have been passing constitutional bans against gay marriage when gay marriage was already illegal in our state. We wouldn’t have been putting bills up like RFRA that are really a solution in search of a problem. And it found a problem. But it turns out that it caused the problem. We would not be having this conversation [about LGBT civil rights] had RFRA not come up, because RFRA damaged our reputation so badly that we now have to make sure people understand that we don’t agree with discrimination, that it’s not okay in Indiana.

This is going to be the third session dominated by quote-unquote social issues, and it’s not because folks in my wing of the party have taken action. It’s because other folks have gone out looking for fights.

For years, I was quiet in the Republican Party and focused on getting good candidates elected and not taking a role in these things, mainly because I didn’t really see them going anywhere. Sure, there were some things being done to push these issues forward, but it didn’t reach the critical mass where I thought, “Okay, this thing’s going to go to a referendum and be in our constitution if we don’t do something about it.” That’s when I got active on these issues. It’s like waiting for someone to pick a fight with you and not doing anything, but at some point you have to say, “Enough is enough.”

Bonnie Rice contributed to this article. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Read an opposing viewpoint from Patrick Mangan of Citizens for Community Values of Indiana.