Initial Thoughts on RFRA

In the last blog, I wrote about Senator Rubio. One of the things I like most about him is that he is willing to invite others into the Republican tent. He doesn’t automatically write off the Latino vote; instead, he talks with members of that community to identify areas of common ground. Similarly, he gently rebuked Mitt Romney for his categorization of 47% of Americans as “takers.” Rubio recognizes that sometimes people are born or fall into bad circumstances beyond their control. This characteristic has been blasted by some hard-line, extremist Republicans, but I think Rubio has it right.

And, although I fervently identify as a Republican, I am disappointed by those same hard-line, extremist social conservatives living in Indiana who have dug in their heels regarding the State’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

I do feel bad for some Christians who have been left on the hook for astronomical damages after refusing to open their property for a homosexual wedding, etc. While I would not refuse to serve a gay or lesbian individual, I also would not sue a family farm, etc., for refusing to let me wed on their property. Would I publicly shame them? Probably. Would I bitch about them to friends and family? Absolutely. Would I take them to court (or, even worse, a local civil rights administration) to deprive them of their homestead? No. But others have chosen to do so. I believe these are the actions that have driven Hoosier Republicans to pass RFRA. They genuinely want to protect constituents’ ability to act (or decline to act) in a manner consistent with their religious beliefs.

At the same time, that doesn’t mean enacting the RFRA was the proper decision. From a pragmatic standpoint, it does open the door for discrimination. While I do believe that Republicans intended to protect religious beliefs, is ludicrous to ignore the fact that RFRA was passed in the legislative session immediately after homosexual marriage became legally permissible in Indiana. It’s also important to recognize that, while they have been the most vocal opposition group, gays and lesbians are not the only ones at risk of being discriminated against under RFRA. Several years ago, I remember reading Christopher Hitchens’ book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. She refused to purchase an elevator for a New York orphanage she ran, claiming that the orphanage’s funds needed to be expended elsewhere. Although perhaps a bit far-fetched, under an RFRA-type law her attorneys could have made an argument that Catholic dogma mandates helping one another and, as Mother Teresa wanted, orphanage employees could carry disabled people up and down stairs. That way, the Church could have carried out more important activities with the funds, such as feeding the poor. Less far-fetched, what if a religious organization believed that disabled people were made that way by an evil force (i.e., the devil)? Could they refuse service to a paraplegic or a blind person?

As a Hoosier, I hate to hear that so many organizations are pulling out of Indiana. As Mayor Ballard has stated, Indianapolis has worked for decades to make the city the tourist destination that it is. Nevertheless, an organization I am affiliated with has its constituents clamoring that the conference be moved. Were it not for over $100,000 in contractual losses the organization would face in moving elsewhere, the organization would be long gone. I doubt it will return in future years unless something is done.

Of course, that’s not to say that a decision is inherently good or bad based upon its public reception. Indeed, many legislative activities that need to be conducted (e.g., Medicaid reform) are politically unpopular. Yet, this bill simply trades civil rights for one constituency for the civil rights of another constituency. That’s the risk of delving into messy social issues.


Improve Yours First, GCPD

You might notice that it took me several days to write about this year’s Annual Conference sponsored by the Indiana Governor’s Council for People with Disabilities, which concluded on December 9. Why was I holding my tongue? Although the year’s theme was “Improve Yours,” the Council did anything but. For the third year in a row, attendees listened to irrelevant speakers prattle on about subjects of little or no interest to people with disabilities.

The Conference opened with an address from keynote speaker Mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City. Yes, a city outside the bounds of Indiana. Mayor Cornett could have shared ideas that he has explored for the betterment of people with disabilities, those that Conference attendees could take back to their hometowns for application, but instead, the Mayor gave a one-hour history lesson about Oklahoma City. Granted, it was entertaining. But I wasn’t there for a comedy show – I wanted to learn something.

In the final 10 minutes or so of his presentation, Mayor Cornett discussed the fact that he put his city on a diet. He was proud to announce that his constituents had lost a collective million pounds. How did they do this? The Mayor said that he didn’t want to take anyone’s food away, so he encouraged exercise programs. He used tax dollars to extend City bike trails. Great. Let me roll down to the bike shop in my wheelchair and get on that…

Fortunately, Conference attendees don’t seem to be willing to put up with terrible conference agendas anymore. Almost immediately, the Mayor was asked about visitability. When he began to discuss tourism, his questioner explained that visitability is a housing concept. If a home is visitable, someone in a wheelchair can get inside through at least one entrance and use one restroom. Sheepishly, the Mayor said that his condo was visitable. Other questions asked from a more aggressive approach regarded public transportation and Oklahoma City’s lack of sidewalks.

After a ridiculously long 2 ½ hour break, attendees were next subjected to an hour-long speech from Dr. Mary Patterson entitled Violence as a Health Issue. Not a single time in her entire address was disability mentioned. Instead, the speech called for reducing violence by getting involved in social programs. Clearly, it was aimed for residents of inner cities. Minority members of inner cities. And those minorities did not come from the disability community. What about theft from personal care attendants? Neglect and abuse against elders and other disabled individuals? Sexual abuse from caregivers?

Although completely ignored by Dr. Patterson, again, Conference attendees were not willing to let the issues drop. State Senator Michael Crider, Reverend Charles Harrison of the Ten Point Coalition, Steve McCaffrey of Mental Health America of Indiana, Director of Public Safety Troy Riggs, Stephen Viehweg of Riley Child development Center, and Gary Mayor Karen Freeman, members of the following panel, were left feel the wrath of unhappy attendees. To their credit, both Mayor Freeman and Director Riggs attempted to provide advice and assistance to the questions they were asked. Most of the panelists were clueless.

I don’t entirely blame conference attendees – speaking gigs are gold stars on resumes, so I why them down? No, I’m too cynical. These are community leaders, and many probably do have an interest in improving services for people with disabilities. They likely had a genuine interest in being part of the conversation.

Instead, the blame rests squarely on the Council itself. After all, don’t they choose the theme and agenda? Have they been listening to feedback from a crowd that gets smaller and smaller with each passing year? Perhaps not.

Merging Emerging?

In his latest INforefront blog, Chris Cotterill, proposes decimating the number of State agencies. He suggests several mergers as a starting point, one of which would entail combining the Family and Social Services Administration, Governor’s Council for People with Disabilities, and Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services. Bad idea:

Chris, ordinarily I am in favor of the recommendations that you share on the blog. Today we disagree, at least in part. Merging the GCPD and IPAS into FSSA would be a bad move for people with disabilities.


First, their constituencies are different. GCPD and IPAS are tasked (federally) with serving people with disabilities (and, arguably, their families). In contrast, FSSA serves a broader service group, and must carefully contend with taxpayers at large and provider agencies. These latter two groups have interests that may directly conflict with those of the disability community.


This creates logistical issues. IPAS has the power to sue FSSA, but a agencies don’t sue themselves. Is everyone subservient to the FSSA Secretary? Do GCPD Members still have authority to appoint staff?


Finally, who is left to be the watchdog?

Cotterill did respond, acknowledging my concerns and raising a few of his own. Part of his response was inaccurate — GCPD has actually existed in one incarnation or another for decades — while another was astute. Without improved coordination between the three bodies, people with disabilities aren’t being served as fully as possible.

Anyway, the Cotterills are good people who have served the disability community. Chris’ mother began Indiana’s Ms. Wheelchair Indiana Pageant in 2009, is a long-time supporter of the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana, and Editor of People on Wheels. But if merger is entertained, I hope people with disabilities are included in the discussion.

Out with the Old, In with the New

Approximately two weeks have passed since it was announced that Indiana Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) Secretary Debra Minott would be leaving. After a year and a half on the job, word has it that Minott and Governor Mike Pence had irreconcilable differences over how — and when — the rollout of HIP 2.0 would occur.

The following week Hoosiers learned that a former secretary, Michael Gargano, will serve in an interim capacity until Dr. John Wernert takes the helm in July. Wernert’s background is impressive, both in terms of education (he is a psychiatrist with a Master’s in health administration) and stature (he is presently President-Elect of the Indiana State Medical Association). It should be interesting to see in what direction he takes the Agency!