Geeks for gay rights: $50 million gaming convention threatens to leave Indiana over anti-LGBT bill
Good friends playing video games (Shutterstock)

The organizers of one of the biggest conventions in Indiana suggested they would take the event out of the state if Gov. Mike Pence (R) authorizes a bill that could allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers, Polygon reported on Tuesday.

GenCon LLC chief executive officer Adrian Swartout released a letter he sent to Pence (PDF) touting the convention's history of serving "a diverse attendee base, made up of different ethnicities, cultures, beliefs, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, and socio-economic backgrounds."

Swartout said that the gaming convention drew 56,000 people to the Indianapolis Convention Center last year, and brings in $50 million worth of business on an annual basis. Though the event is under contract to be held in Indianapolis through 2020, Swartout said, Pence signing Senate Bill 101 into law "will factor into our decision-making on hosting the convention in the state of Indiana in future years."

According to the Indianapolis Star, the bill would prevent state and local governments from "substantially burdening" state residents regarding their religious practices without a compelling interest.

It is reportedly modeled after the the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, which was a key factor in the Supreme Court decision that allowed Hobby Lobby and other corporate entities to use religious grounds as the basis for opting out of the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive care mandate. Critics argued that the bill effectively legalizes anti-LGBT discrimination.

"It basically says to a group of people you're second rate, you don't matter, and if you walk into my store, I don't have to serve you," state Minority Leader Scott Pelath (D) said while debating the measure.

The bill passed in the Republican-controlled state Senate on Tuesday, a day after it was approved by the state House. Pence voiced his support for the measure in a statement following the House vote.

"The legislation, SB 101, is about respecting and reassuring Hoosiers that their religious freedoms are intact," the governor's statement read. "I strongly support the legislation and applaud the members of the General Assembly for their work on this important issue. I look forward to signing the bill when it reaches my desk."

A spokesperson for the Indianapolis travel bureau, Chris Gahl, told the Star that Swartout's group contacted the agency before releasing the letter to Pence. Gahl added that his agency has also come out against the measure.

"Our concern is that there could be a misperception with this bill that doesn't paint a picture of being a warm, welcoming, hospitable place," he said. "It doesn't align with the brand that is Indianapolis, and for that matter, Indiana. Because it could impact our ability to win convention business down the road -- and keep convention business -- we raised our hand and said we do have a concern."

Polygon reported that GenCon's heavy drawing power was one factor in a $275 million expansion project that added about 200,000 square feet of floor space to the convention center. The city is slated to host the NCAA men's basketball national semifinals and finals starting on Saturday.