Reps. Diana Gonzalez (P/D-Winooski), left, and Anne Donahue (R-Northfield) discuss an anti-discriminatory resolution Thursday at the Statehouse.
As they wrapped up work on blockbuster education and water-quality bills, House members spent part of Thursday pondering how to express their feelings about a spate of religious freedom laws popping up in states around the country.
As the day wore on, those expressions grew more complicated. So complicated that discussion on the House floor was delayed until Friday. It seemed every statement condemning discrimination either went too far or not far enough for somebody.
Earlier this week, Gov. Peter Shumlin issued a ban on non-essential state travel to Indiana, which has drawn controversy for a religious freedom law many believe opens the door to discrimination against gays and lesbians. On Thursday, 26 House members sponsored a resolution asking Gov. Peter Shumlin, the legislature and judiciary to extend that ban to all states with similar religious freedom laws.
"This legislative body expresses its strong opposition to Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act as signed into law on March 26, 2015," the resolution read, "and expresses its support for, at a minimum, enactment of the proposed clarification and, preferably, for the law's repeal."
Indiana’s law was widely seen as a legal justification for private business owners to refuse, on religious grounds, to serve gays and lesbians. The law ignited outcry, prompting lawmakers in Indiana to vote Thursday to change the law to prohibit its use as a legal defense for refusing to offer services.
“We need to do this because I think it expresses the majority will of the people of Vermont,” said Rep. Paul Poirier (I-Barre), who was among the sponsors.
Poirier told a gathering of Republicans that the ban would halt official travel to about 20 states.
“There’s eight,” countered Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield).
“We should know how many states we’re banning travel to,” Rep. Patti Komline (R-Dorset) said.
Other states have similar laws, or are considering adopting them. But unlike Indiana, some states with such laws also bar discrimination based on sexual orientation. Poirier couldn't definitely say which ones counted and which didn't.
Questions about the resolution went deeper, though. Some asked why Vermont should tell other states what to do at all.
“Why, why, why?” asked Rep. Linda Myers (R-Essex). “Why should we stick our nose in it?”
To say that Vermont will not send official representatives to a state that supports discrimination, Poirier responded.
“When we passed civil unions did anyone send a resolution to us?” asked Rep. Doug Gage (R-Rutland), referring to Vermont's groundbreaking decision in 2000 to legalize same-sex unions.
House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton), who had been pulling members aside throughout the day to discourage them from offering amendments, stood at the front of the room trying to prevent the debate from straying into anything that could get his members in trouble.
"We don't believe in discrimination," he pronounced firmly.
“I’m not sure we need to do this at all,” Donahue offered. But, she said, if the House is going to pass a resolution it should say that Vermont strongly opposes discrimination of any kind — not just on a religious basis.
Rep. Diana Gonzalez (P/D-Winooski), a lead sponsor of the resolution, said she welcomed Donahue’s addition. "We're sending a message that Vermont stands against discrimination," she said.
Rep. Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg) wanted to add even more words, encouraging all 50 states to enact statutes that specifically protect people against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“We’ve resolved these issues in Vermont,” Lippert told the Republican gathering, citing laws that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, along with those that legalized same-sex civil unions and marriage.
After lawmakers decided to delay voting on the resolution until Friday, Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington) commented that he was ready to vote to condemn discrimination and ban travel to states that allow it.