Gay rights won’t fade as a political issue. The Republican base won’t let it.
Prominent Republicans calculated that if the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was constitutionally protected, the issue would become settled law and disappear politically. This would be welcome, they reasoned, as the party was on the wrong side of the politics and history.
Then Indiana enacted a Religious Freedom Restoration Act last month that critics said would allow private enterprises to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Arkansas followed with a similar measure.
After vehement opposition from businesses in both states, Republican governors forced modifications that make it more difficult to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
But a leading indicator was the reaction of Republican presidential candidates: They leapt to defend the initial Indiana law. Jeb Bush expressed all-out support in an interview on a conservative radio talk show and then modified his position at a Silicon Valley fundraiser.
Social conservatives are determined to keep this issue alive, reasoning that the environment that produced changes in the laws last week will become more favorable after they have had time to stir up the grass roots. That will pose problems for Republicans in a general election; the politics have changed dramatically compared with a decade ago, when Republican political guru Karl Rove used the issue against Democrats.
Crucial elements of the Republican base haven’t changed. Most, not all, evangelical/born-again white Christians are troubled by gay rights. This group accounts for more than 40 percent of the Republicans nationally and for more than 50 percent of the vote in the important early Iowa and South Carolina Republican presidential tests. That guarantees Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee will make these issues uncomfortable for Jeb Bush and Scott Walker.
Nineteen states have religious freedom laws, and some go beyond the 1993 federal law. Four – Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico and Rhode Island – have measures that include a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation.
But Indiana postponed the matter of prohibiting anti-gay discrimination. In Georgia recently, as the legislature drafted a measure supported by religious conservatives, a Republican tried to amend it to clarify that it wouldn’t permit discrimination against gays and lesbians; the bill’s sponsor suggested that would defeat the law’s purpose.
The politically powerful religious or conservative right can be expected to set litmus tests for Republican presidential candidates: opposing new anti-discrimination measures designed to protect gays and lesbians and guarding against what they warn is a slippery slope on matters including adoptions by same-sex couples.
Many of these social activists sincerely worry that it’s white people of religion who face discrimination; some believe that same-sex marriage, gay rights in general, violate the law of God.
There are parallels to race. Religion was often cited as a rationale for segregation; if God intended whites and blacks to be together, why did he create different races, fundamentalists would ask. There were similar issues with discrimination in public accommodations and housing. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court gave constitutional protection to interracial marriage.
Today, these issues create a genuine schism among Republican constituencies, with much of the business community showing support for gay rights. These aren’t just West Coast or high-tech firms, but companies based in Middle America, such as Eli Lilly and Wal-Mart.
The religious right sees this as a battle between economics and morality. Politically, however, the most telling reaction to the Indiana law was that of well-known athletes usually not considered part of any left-wing crusade.
The basketball great Charles Barkley suggested the collegiate basketball tournament shouldn’t be held in Indiana, and Pat Haden, former all-star quarterback and now athletic director at the University of Southern California, boycotted an athletic event in the Hoosier state.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg columnist.