The powerful grassroots backlash against Indiana’s anti-gay “religious freedom” law is yielding results and inspiring hope. Right-wing supporters of the law were seemingly caught unawares by a grassroots response that’s put them on the defensive.
On Monday, the Georgia House Judiciary Committee canceled a meeting to discuss a “religious freedom” bill similar to Indiana’s. The “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act” passed the state’s Senate earlier this month. Like Indiana’s law, Georgia’s bill would give businesses and private individuals a legal defense for denying services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The bill would undoubtedly pass in Georgia’s state House, where Republicans hold a near 2-to–1 majority, if it ever comes up for a vote.
Perhaps the backlash against Indiana’s law gave Georgia Republicans second thoughts.
Georgia is not alone. While Arkansas lawmakers moved forward with their own bill, North Carolina’s Republican governor Pat McCrory said he would not sign a “religious freedom” bill passed in his state. Montana’s “religious freedom” bill was narrowly defeated in the state House after Gov. Steve Bullock (D) noted the backlash against Indiana’s law, and said Montana didn’t need a similar measure.
Finally, unable to ignore a grassroots backlash that’s quickly grown large enough to threaten his state’s economic future, Indiana governor Mike Pence held a press conference to call for a legislative “fix” for a law he spent the last week saying wasn’t broken.
The GOP’s “Indiana Problem”
This week Mike Pence came to embody what might henceforth be known as the GOP’s “Indiana problem.” Once a symbol of the GOP’s “deep bench” and one of its top presidential contenders for 2016, Pence’s conservative credentials — and the religious right’s continued influence over the GOP — demanded that he defend Indiana’s anti-gay “religious freedom” law. Likewise, GOP presidential hopefuls rushed to defend Indiana’s law, seeking to motivate Christian conservatives to back them in the primaries.
The problem is that Republicans have to be either dishonest or deluded to back “religious freedom” laws, only to end up tripping over the truth or running headlong into reality. Pence signed the “religious freedom” bill into law in a ceremony that was closed to the press and the public. Pence later tweeted a photograph from the signing, but refused to name the lobbyists who attended.
— Governor Mike Pence (@GovPenceIN) March 26, 2015
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That’s probably because, though he claimed the law was not about anti-LGBT discrimination, Pence was flanked by some of Indiana’s most prominent anti-gay activists when he signed it.
— SPLC (@splcenter) March 30, 2015
Those same anti-gay activists oppose any attempt to “clarify” that Indiana’s law does not legalize discrimination. Conservatives are already blasting Pence for “caving” by calling for such clarifications, because they know that it could potentially destroy the bill by exposing one dishonest defense of it. Pence and other supporters falsely claim that the law simply mirrors the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and those in other states, while ignoring some important differences that are so obvious even a Fox News anchor can spot them.
Ballard has a point. A 2014 Pew Research survey shows that Americans are almost evenly split on whether businesses should be able to deny service to LGBT people on the basis of “religious freedom”; with 47 percent saying businesses should be allowed to refuse services, and 49 percent saying businesses should be required to provide services.
However, a closer look reveals the “bigger trend.” Among Americans ages 30 to 49, 50 percent believe that “religious freedom” shouldn’t be a license to discriminate, compared to 46 percent who believe otherwise. Among Americans ages 13 to 29, 62 percent oppose such discrimination. A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that 80 percent of millennials believe that LGBT Americans deserve to have laws protecting them against discrimination.
It wasn’t always like this. Of all the old “culture war” battles, LGBT equality is the one where progressive activists have “flipped the script.” Opposition to equality is the new “third rail,” and politicians who touch it are in for a shock. That happened, in large part, because LGBT activists and allies organized against such laws, and humanized the issue so that people increasingly see these laws as a direct attack on their family, friends, neighbors and co-workers.
It happened relatively fast, too. As recently as 2008, then congressman Mike Pence pointed to the success of anti-marriage equality ballot initiatives as a sign of the strength of American conservatism. Just four years later, marriage equality won and anti-gay conservatives lost in every state where marriage equality was on the ballot.
There are other issues — among them immigration, Social Security, unemployment, workers’ rights — on which politicians feel they can act against human decency and fairness without consequence, and conservatives work hard to dehumanize the poor and vulnerable. The lesson here for Democrats is to humanize these issues, and wear down conservative efforts to turn such people as low-income Americans, public workers and undocumented residents into “those people,” until a majority of Americans see “those people” as their family, friends and neighbors — and reject conservative policies that harm them.
In 2016 and beyond, Republicans will find it hard to strike a balance between “religious freedom” and discrimination. They will find it even harder to choose between either “caving” and alienating their base, or alienating the growing majority of voters and facing a grassroots onslaught.