A Hoosier marriage debate, mostly in private

(WISH Photo, file)
(WISH Photo, file)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Over the past week, Indiana’s senators debated a proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage extensively, going over the merits for hours at a time, before deciding a ban shouldn’t appear on the ballot in November. But their reasoning remains largely a mystery to the public, which heard from only one senator during public deliberations.

The gay marriage fight has illuminated one of the less-reported aspects of Indiana’s General Assembly: Debate on the toughest of issues often happens in private caucus meetings of state lawmakers, with much left unsaid in public.

The Senate’s decision not to debate the issue publicly — only Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, spoke publicly — leaves a cloak of secrecy that only makes residents more wary of politicians, said Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana, which fought to get the ban placed on the ballot in November.

“I think it makes people more cynical of politics,” Clark said.

Supporters of the ban, House Joint Resolution 3, often felt like they were outgunned from the start, despite promises from legislative leaders that the vote would go their way as it had in 2011. Indiana law requires constitutional amendments to pass two consecutive biennial sessions of the Legislature before being placed on a ballot.

Clark said the public was left on the sidelines this year as major campaign donors and businesses supporting Freedom Indiana, the umbrella group that successfully blocked the ban this year, claimed most of the spotlight.

“I think that further disenfranchises people and makes them think this is nothing but a political game in Indianapolis,” he said. “We worry about why people don’t vote, why they don’t get involved in the electoral process, why they don’t run for office — they think the system is rigged.”

But not all of the debate occurred behind closed doors.

House Republicans spent much of January in private meetings debating a second sentence to the proposed amendment that barred civil unions and raised questions about whether employers would be prohibited from offering benefits to same-sex couples.

While they didn’t comment on those discussions, House lawmakers did hold an impassioned public debate during which many spoke of their personal faith and struggles with the issue before voting to strip that sentence from the amendment.

The Senate, which supported the House’s version, will still have a shot to lay out its reasoning Monday, when the ban comes up for a final vote in that chamber. But if senators follow last week’s example, the public may never know what happened to sway them.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, isn’t shedding any light on the caucus discussions. He even took Sen. Mike Delph to task for tweeting about the meeting.

“We can’t talk about caucus,” Long said. “Just so you know on this one thing, it’s our rule that we don’t discuss what goes on in caucus. You know, that’s private, and to the extent that anything was said today, that’s a breach of our normal protocol.”

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