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Full-Court Press against a Controversial Law

Chris Watts

The 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly was widely previewed as “the education session.” It will be remembered for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and a different kind of teaching—lessons learned the hard way about how a divisive law can unify a community.

Indiana RFRA supporters said the legislation simply preserved individual religious beliefs against government overreach, but in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, many worried that businesses could use it to justify refusing service to LGBT customers. The Indy Chamber steadfastly opposed the bill, but it moved forward amid conflicting opinions from legal experts and confusion about its potential impact.

“We saw RFRA as an unnecessary distraction and an economic threat,” said Indy Chamber President Michael Huber. “It didn’t reflect the values of our business community, or our commitment to inclusion and hospitality.”

But the bill passed in late March despite the objections of the chamber and other business groups. A few lawmakers stood up against the prevailing opinion of their caucus; five Republicans, representing suburban and rural districts alike, voted against RFRA. This small break in the ranks gave Indy Chamber lobbyists Mark Fisher and Angela Smith-Jones optimism for compromise.

With Indianapolis set to host the NCAA men’s basketball championships the first weekend of April, there were hopes that the issue could be revisited later, but the national attention surrounding the Final Four only magnified the controversy. A tweet from former NBA player Jason Collins (the first openly-gay athlete among U.S. major pro sports) asking if he could expect discrimination when he traveled to Indianapolis reached Huber’s smartphone as he watched the hometown Indiana Pacers on March 23.

Huber quickly thumbed out a reply: “Hey @jasoncollins98, @indychamber opposes the proposed RFRA, and Indy will welcome you and ALL visitors to our town…”

“We already knew the backlash would be bad,” Huber recalled. “The Collins tweet was a harbinger of how much worse it would get.”

A divisive bill becomes a damaging law

When Governor Mike Pence formally signed the Act in a private ceremony April 2, condemnation grew against the new law that many believed would sanction discrimination. Instead of showing off the region’s vibrant downtown and “Hoosier hospitality” to college basketball fans everywhere, Indianapolis found itself under a harsh spotlight.

At the Indy Chamber, efforts to defeat the RFRA bill turned into a spirited campaign to limit its damage, rally chamber members and build a broad coalition to safeguard civil rights and our reputation as a great place to live, visit, and do business.

Decades of economic growth undone with the stroke of a pen?

Indianapolis’ hospitality industry contributes nearly $4.5 billion annually and 75,000 jobs to the local economy, plus millions in sales taxes to state government coffers—the rewards of a three-decade effort by the public and private sectors to revitalize the city’s downtown and attract championship sporting events and conventions. A welcoming attitude towards visitors is simply good business for Indy’s restaurants, retailers, and the hoteliers charged with filling downtown’s 7,100 guest rooms. The region’s major employers in the life sciences, advanced manufacturing, and technology also recruit employees globally, making Indy’s appeal to talented people from all walks of life a matter of competitiveness as well as community pride.

In 2005, the chamber lobbied successfully for a Marion County (Indianapolis) human rights ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. In recent years, the organization joined the Freedom Indiana campaign to derail a state constitutional amendment against marriage equality. RFRA threatened to undermine these efforts and jeopardize economic growth.

“We believe that an open and inclusive culture is part of a healthy business climate,” said Mark Fisher, the chamber’s V.P. of government relations and policy development. “We’ve worked hard to encourage that kind of environment here, but RFRA showed how quickly years of advocacy effort can be put at risk.”

Mounting controversy, escalating calls for action

Many people seemed genuinely caught off-guard by the severity of the backlash and attacks on RFRA as discriminatory, and it seemed many were hoping the furor would subside.

Such hopes were in vain: As Governor Pence appeared on This Week with George Stephanopoulos April 5 to defend RFRA, more than 800 million Twitter impressions showed a lively and vocal opposition to the law. Impressions quickly eclipsed a billion, nearly half of which included the hashtag #boycottIndiana.

The stakes were getting higher for the Indy Chamber, its members and partners. Our efforts to calm the storm offer lessons for fellow Chambers dealing with a community crisis:

Mobilize quickly, find strength in numbers

Job one was building the biggest, most engaged coalition with a stake in reversing or repairing RFRA. The Indy Chamber, Indiana Sports Corporation, Visit Indy, the Indiana Restaurant and Lodging Association, Indy Hub (a young professionals networking initiative) and representatives of iconic institutions like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway organized a meeting that same weekend to plot strategy.

The region’s leading corporate citizens also stepped up their efforts against RFRA, most notably Eli Lilly & Company, Cummins, and San Francisco-based Salesforce.com.

The group launched a coordinated campaign of public statements and social media outreach, responding quickly to media inquiries and pushing a dual message calling for a repeal or overhaul of RFRA, while promoting Indianapolis as a place where tolerance and inclusion would transcend the actions at the Statehouse.

This impressive array of advocates also stood behind Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard – literally and figuratively – as he gave a vigorous defense of the city at a press conference on March 30: “Indianapolis will not be defined by this...” Ballard also issued an executive order reasserting the Indianapolis human rights ordinance, reminding the public of the city’s progressive history on LGBT equality.

It’s (always) the economy

Statements by the GOP mayor gave some political cover to wavering suburban Republican legislators. But even more impactful was the growing evidence of potential economic damage. After all, the language of jobs and investment is spoken on both sides of the aisle.

Major conventions like GenCon and the Disciples of Christ began to publicly reconsider returning to Indianapolis. Angie’s List, the online consumer review site and local start-up success story, hit the pause button on its planned headquarters expansion. A growing list of companies and state and local governments began cancelling employee travel to Indiana.

The drumbeat of negative stories hit lawmakers coming off a bruising budget debate necessitated by anemic tax collections. The Indy Chamber also manages the region’s business attraction effort, and the economic development impact of RFRA became potent ammunition for our communications strategy.

If you can’t control the tide, ride the wave

The chamber and its allies also recognized that the public dialogue and opposition to RFRA was being shaped online. In the past, public relations gurus sometimes advised clients to remain silent in the face of controversy, so as not to prolong a “one-day story.” This counsel is increasingly unworkable with today’s appetite for real-time reaction powered by the echo chamber of social media.

The challenge for chambers is to leverage tools like Twitter to spread their message, realizing that this invites a two-way dialogue that can’t be micro-managed. Ignoring grassroots users means being marginalized by a Twittersphere wary of top-down communications.

The Indy Chamber walked this line on RFRA, responding with solidarity and sympathy to many expressing outrage over the law while launching a new campaign, #IndyWelcomesAll, to make a positive statement about the city’s opposition to discrimination. (In addition to social media, a massive ‘Indy Welcomes All’ banner greeted visitors at Indianapolis International Airport.)

The chamber also embraced an independent effort that sprung up online, “Open for Service,” a voluntary registry of businesses committed to tolerance. Open for Service window stickers and t-shirts were made available for all chamber members and non-member businesses to make a widespread statement ahead of the Final Four festivities. Chamber staff hit the streets, going door to door in walkable retail districts in and around downtown to distribute decals.

Relationships are the coin of the realm

Public pressure was forcing behind-the-scenes action, as lawmakers and the governor’s office met for emergency negotiations on a RFRA revision. While repeal of the law was off the table, House Speaker Brian Bosma (of Indianapolis) and Senate President Pro Tem David Long came to the table willing to make significant changes.

Chambers help members build relationships through networking and collaboration – it’s a key benefit of membership. But Chamber leaders themselves also have to maintain a widespread and diverse network of friends, allies, and partners throughout their community (and beyond) to give business a voice.

As negotiations over RFRA intensified, the value of relationships built on respect and trust became clear. The Indy Chamber advocacy team (with lobbying firepower from high-profile companies including Salesforce) helped craft new language forbidding discriminatory business practices and upholding local human rights ordinances. But for many, the fix didn’t go far enough.

With assurances from the Indy Chamber that the fight for full (and statewide) discrimination protections would continue with business support, members of the LGBT community (including Zach Adamson, Marion County’s first openly-gay City-County Councillor and a leading progressive voice in local government) lined up in support of the bill. As the fix quickly passed the General Assembly and was signed by Governor Pence, their support was instrumental in calming the media feeding frenzy and setting a tone of reconciliation as the first Final Four visitors began arriving in Indianapolis.

Turning the meltdown into momentum for progress

The RFRA fallout is still being felt across Indiana. But in Indianapolis, an aggressive response rallied business leaders, city officials and the LGBT community to demand a legislative fix and reaffirm that “Indy welcomes all.” Our response transformed the negative narrative into a story about the Indy region standing against discrimination, and challenging itself to exceed the highest standards of “Hoosier Hospitality” in welcoming 70,000 visitors who flooded into the city for the most-watched Final Four in 20 years.

By harnessing the backlash against RFRA, the Indy Chamber and like-minded allies have set the stage to push for more comprehensive civil rights progress in the 2016 legislative session. Ironically, the RFRA fight raised the profile of the issue, and recent polls show majority support for statewide LGBT protections.

“The first round of the RFRA controversy showed how engaged and active business leaders can make a difference,” Indy Chamber President Huber said. “But we’re not finished. This fight has galvanized our membership, and really advanced the public conversation about equality.”

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