Judge denies challenge to Indiana religious objection limits


FILE – In this Oct. 3, 2019 file photo, James Bopp, the attorney for conservative religious groups challenging limits on Indiana’s religious objections law, speaks with reporters at the Hamilton County government center in Noblesville, Ind. Conservative religious groups have failed to convince an Indiana judge they’ve faced any harm from limits placed on the state’s contentious religious objections law signed by then-Gov. Mike Pence. Bopp, argued during an October hearing that they were subject to “grotesque stripping” of their religious rights by the Republican-dominated Legislature. (AP Photo/Tom Davies File)

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — An Indiana judge has canceled a trial challenging limits on the state’s religious objections law, finding conservative groups failed to prove they were harmed by changes the Republican-dominated Legislature approved shortly after then-Gov. Mike Pence signed it.

In calling off the trial that was scheduled for February, Hamilton County Judge Michael Casati agreed with arguments the state and four cities made that the groups lacked standing to sue.

Their lawsuit challenged changes to a 2015 law prohibiting any government actions that “substantially burden” a person’s ability to follow his or her religious beliefs. The definition of “person” includes religious institutions, businesses and associations.

Pence, a Republican who is now vice president, signed the bill amid national uproar that it could be used to discriminate against gays and lesbians. But days later, legislators made revisions blocking its use as a legal defense for refusing to provide services, goods, facilities or accommodations on the basis of race, religion, gender, military service or sexual orientation.

The Indiana Family Institute, Indiana Family Action and the American Family Association of Indiana had argued the changes threatened to hinder their ability to speak out against same-sex marriages and expose them to claims of discrimination in hiring. Casati ruling, filed Friday, didn’t elaborate on how he reached the decision that they didn’t show how they were harmed by the changes.

Their lawsuit also challenged local civil rights ordinances that include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Indianapolis, Carmel, Bloomington and Columbus, which is Pence’s hometown.

Micah Clark, the American Family Association of Indiana’s executive director, said he was disappointed the judge didn’t take up the constitutional freedom of speech arguments made in the lawsuit.

Clark said an appeal was being considered and maintained that city officials haven’t taken any enforcement action against the religious groups because of the lawsuit, which was originally filed in December 2015 and has since faced numerous legal arguments whether it should move forward in court.

“It has taken us four years to get this point, so they obviously aren’t going to do anything in those four years with the case pending,” Clark said.

The religious groups’ attorney, James Bopp, argued during an October hearing that they were subject to “grotesque stripping” of their religious rights by the Legislature. Bopp didn’t immediately reply to messages seeking comment Wednesday.

At least 21 Indiana cities or counties — representing about 38% of the state’s population — now have local LGBT protection ordinances, according to the gay-rights advocacy group Freedom Indiana.

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