INDIANAPOLIS – Any speculation that state lawmakers would wait until after the November election to debate civil rights for lesbian, gay and transgender Hoosiers is now gone.

On Monday, state Senate President David Long of Fort Wayne said legislators will soon see what he called a “comprehensive” bill that may extend anti-discrimination protections while allowing people to also claim religious freedom to deny those protections.

“We're trying to do our best to get a balanced piece of legislation,” the Republican Long said, speaking at a legislative preview hosted by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

Long refused to give details of the proposed measure that will be filed when lawmakers return to the Statehouse for their short, 10-week session in January.

But he said it would be written by state Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle. Holdman is a social and religious conservative who pushed last year, unsuccessfully, for a law that would allow employers receiving state dollars to refuse to hire someone based on the applicant’s religion.

Long also promised a hearing on the bill, ending weeks of speculation that legislators would stall taking up the contentious measure until after the 2016 November election.

Legislators have been under increasing heat to act to expand the state’s current civil rights law to cover sexual orientation and gender identity under the same protections that now cover gender, race, ethnicity and age.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce turned up the heat earlier this month, when it called on its traditional Republican allies in the Legislature to pass such a measure. Chamber officials argued that expanded protections against potential discrimination would help the state better recruit and retain talent for employers.

The Chamber believes such a measure could help repair damage done to its national image, after Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed a so-called “religious freedom” law earlier this year that critics said was a license to discriminate against gays and lesbians under the guise of faith.

But Republicans who control both chambers of the Legislature are also feeling the fiery heat of conservative Christian groups. Those organizations argue expanding the civil rights law would force their followers to condone activities they say are prohibited by the Bible.

The issue may dominate much of the legislative session, which by law must end by late March.

Pence, who could veto such a measure, has yet to weigh in on what he wants the Legislature to do. He’s told reporters that he’s still studying the matter.

House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis), meanwhile, said the Legislature won’t be “bullied, badgered or blackmailed” into passing a measure that isn’t supported by most Hoosiers.

At the Chamber’s legislative preview Monday, Bosma promised a civil debate would ensue, but he admitted it could be difficult.

“This is clearly the toughest issue of the session,” he said, "maybe the toughest issue of our (legislative) careers.”

That’s not how his Democratic counterpart sees it. House Minority Leader Scott Pelath (D-Michigan City) said legislators could simply pass a bill that adds four words: “sexual orientation, gender identity” to the state’s civil rights law. And then move on to other pressing issues, such as road funding.

“My advice,” he said, “is to get it over with.”

Pelath's fellow legislators also acknowledged the need to address other critical issues. Bosma and Long both said that finding a sustainable source of revenue to pay for road and bridge repair would be a priority for lawmakers in the next session.

That may prove difficult, too.

Road experts say Indiana must come up with an additional $1 billion a year to maintain and repair state and local roads and bridges. But one often-mentioned solution, raising the state gasoline tax, already faces opposition from the governor.

Long and Bosma said the Legislature may also move to increase criminal penalties for heroin dealers, in response to the rising number of heroin arrests and heroin overdoses around the state. They declined, however, to elaborate on what that proposal might entail.

© 2019 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.