GOSHEN, Ind. — In a cradle of conservatism about 150 miles northeast of Indianapolis, a powerful lobbyist stood up inside a church and declared Elkhart County the next political battleground in Indiana.
What happens in Elkhart and Goshen with gay rights, he said, would set the stage for what could happen statewide.
“You’re in the middle of this,” conservative lobbyist Eric Miller of Advance America told the Calvary Assembly of God, according to The Elkhart Truth, “and you can make a difference.”
But it is his influence — and that of other outsiders — that makes what is happening in Elkhart and Goshen so unlike what has transpired in several other communities that have amended local laws to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers from discrimination.
Advocates are gearing up to push for statewide inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes — what they see as a next step in the LGBT rights fight — to ensure those characteristics cannot be reasons for firing people from their jobs, denying housing or education opportunities, or refusing services.
Others, including Miller, contend that would give LGBT Hoosiers “special rights” at the expense of the devoutly religious who oppose same-sex marriages.
With both sides eager to chalk up a win and seize the momentum, the local policy debate in Elkhart County has become strident — with accusations of scare tactics and intimidation. In a new twist, for example, some charge that gender identity protections could allow predatory men to enter women’s bathrooms.
Left in the middle is the small, conflicted town of Goshen — population 32,000, described by many as a purple spot in a red county and mired in the tug of culture wars.
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