By the time the Indiana Youth Group's specialty license plates were yanked by the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles earlier this month, it was as though they were no more than victims of circumstance.
On the surface was an esoteric contract dispute over selling off low-numbered license plates and a rare instance of full and thorough contract enforcement. But behind the scenes was a cultural war, rife with allegations that the group promoted gay sex, and a strong push by religious conservatives in the General Assembly to keep the group out of the state's popular specialty license plate program.
The final answer achieved by Republicans was the discovery of a technical violation of the youth group's contract that allowed the BMV to revoke the license plates, along with specialty plates for the Indiana 4-H Foundation and the Greenways Foundation.
Missing were the political hallmarks of most intense battles: no roll calls votes with lists of lawmakers who voted "yea" or "nay," no bill sitting at the governor's desk waiting on his signature. Politically, it was the exact opposite of this year's right-to-work battle, with its screaming union members and calculated votes in the House.
"I'm glad the BMV did what they did because we were unable to pass legislation this year," said Eric Miller, founder of Advance America and the lobbyist behind the effort to cancel the youth group's plates. Throughout the 2012 session, Miller told lawmakers the youth group was supporting gay sex between young children without parental consent.
IYG Executive Director Mary Byrne has emphatically denied Miller's charges, saying she views Miller "as someone who makes money off of us. He and his organization rile people up and spread lies and get a certain group of people in our state riled up enough to send him money."
The battle simmered quietly at first. In the House, Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Lizton, tried unsuccessfully three times to amend separate measures to include a ban on specialty plates for the youth group.
When the issue bubbled up in February, House Transportation Chairman Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said he told Thompson he should scrap the amendment, lest it take over the broader debate about curbing the use of specialty plates by any group in Indiana. Take over the entire debate it did, with or without Thompson's amendment.
One of the few official documents in this battle was a March 9 letter from 20 Republican senators to BMV Commissioner Scott Waddell, asking him to revoke the plates because of a contract violation. Of the 20 senators, six who signed on were first elected in either 2008 or 2010.
"There's this perception that somehow now the Senate has slid far to the right. It's not true. We have a pretty conservative caucus overall, but we have different opinions on this or that issue. It's not solid block here or there," said Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, when asked if his group had become more conservative.
Sen. Jim Merritt said he drafted the request to the BMV as the best compromise to come out of a divided Republican caucus in the waning hours of the 2012 session. While he said he did not want to target the youth group, he said he had to represent Republicans.
There may be different stripes of conservatives inside the Senate, he said, but the overall caucus is broadly conservative.
"The bottom line is you've got a conservative caucus," Merritt said.
Gov. Mitch Daniels has said he wants a "truce" on social issues, but he has also signed off on social conservative priorities like the defunding of Planned Parenthood because it performs abortions. Throughout the session and afterward, he told reporters that he wanted nothing to do with the license plate battle.
"My only input was to say to the BMV that whatever the rules are, they ought to be enforced," Daniels said when asked about the March 9 letter from the Republican senators. "We don't believe in having laws on the books that aren't enforced, and secondly they've got to be enforced evenhandedly and that's what happened."
Merritt started the 2012 session by looking at a complete overhaul of the specialty plate system with Soliday. Now he wants to continue with a study of the more than 100 specialty plates the state issues for groups ranging from the Indianapolis Colts to the state's major universities.
Miller said he will return in 2013 with legislation to ban the youth group from having specialty plates, saying he is still concerned about what he calls the "immoral and possibly illegal activity" the organization engages in.
"That was the whole thrust in the Legislature, as the senators and representatives were looking for a way to address this," he said. "The more they found out about this organization, the more troubled they were."
Byrne said her group is still pondering what legal action it will take.