With the backlash in full effect—with cancellations of gamer conventions, Wilco concerts, office expansions—even Indiana Governor Mike Pence backtracked today, saying that he will accept the kind of legislative “fix” that Republicans had earlier rejected, as Jackie Kucinich reports.
To hear Gov. Pence tell it, his state is being unfairly singled out. In fact, he protested today, his Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is no different from the ones President Clinton and then-State-Senator Obama supported in the past. He reiterated that today in his press conference, saying it was no different than the federal bill the ACLU applauded “when President Clinton signed it in 1993.”
That is incorrect—and Gov. Pence knows it. Pence either doesn’t know the law—which is unlikely—or he is purposefully not telling the truth about it. And he kept up that lie today.
In fact, Indiana is different, for four specific reasons: Hobby Lobby, the interests supporting this bill, the bill's focus on antidiscrimination, and the role of business.
1. Hobby Lobby
First and most importantly, Gov. Pence is being knowingly disingenuous when he compares Indiana’s RFRA to others. When Bill Clinton signed the federal RFRA in 1993, it passed Congress nearly unanimously. That’s because it was meant as a shield protecting minority religions from government interference. The typical cases were Native Americans using peyote, or churches seeking zoning variances—religious acts that didn’t really affect anyone else.
Hobby Lobby changed that. Last year, for the first time, the Supreme Court said RFRA was a sword, as well as a shield, enabling a corporation to deny insurance coverage to its employees. Social conservatives cheered.
Since Hobby Lobby, the only states that have passed RFRAs are Mississippi—not exactly a bastion of tolerance, commerce, and industry—and Indiana. Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, you may recall, vetoed her state’s RFRA after the NFL, among others, rebelled. Georgia and Oklahoma have shelved theirs, and Texas is likely to follow.
Pence’s RFRA is not Clinton’s RFRA. Hobby Lobby changed the game.
Now, does Gov. Pence know this? Of course he does. The law’s own supporters have used the same examples for years: the baker who shouldn’t have to bake a cake for a gay wedding, the photographer, the florist. To most of us, that looks like discrimination—putting a “No Gays Allowed” sign up on your storefront window.
And those are the best cases. RFRAs allow hospitals not to honor same-sex visitation rights, and doctors not to treat the children of lesbians. These are actual cases.
Is Pence just lying, then? Well, not quite, because of ….
2. The Right-Wing Echo Chamber
No matter how many times Gov. Pence says this isn’t about gays and isn’t about discrimination, the people standing behind him when he signed it are a who’s-who of anti-gay social conservatives. (This meme makes it pretty clear.)
Within that far-right echo chamber, RFRA really is about religious freedom. When I started working on this issue two years ago, I thought the “religious freedom” line was just rhetoric to disguise the culture war.
Since then, though, I’ve met and debated these people, and I’ve watched their propaganda. They appear to sincerely believe that Christians are being persecuted, and that LGBT people owe them an “olive branch” in the form of religious exemptions.
That echo chamber has been so well-funded, and is so insular, that it’s lost sight of the American mainstream, which sees discrimination as discrimination, even if there’s a religious reason for it. That’s left Republicans across the country exposed. Their base is telling them RFRAs are about religious freedom, and then they’re shocked when the mainstream sees it differently. Several have privately expressed a sense of betrayal.
The fact is, the echo chamber is far from the mainstream. And when RFRAs are out in the open, they’re failing. And the reason for that is—
State RFRAs are a backlash to same-sex marriage—but, legally speaking, they’re not about marriage, but discrimination law. Should businesses—florists, pharmacies, hospitals, bakeries—be able to say “No Gays Allowed”? This is the question Gov. Pence refused to answer five times on Sunday morning.
And unlike marriage, it is not a close one, in terms of public opinion. Yes, public approval of same-sex marriage has risen sharply, to around 55% today. But public approval of anti-discrimination laws is much higher, around 75 percent.
This is why the focus on marriage (as in this thoughtful blog post at the Washington Post)
is actually somewhat misleading. If this were really about marriage, it would be closer.
Now, will Gov. Pence’s “fix” be the one-sentence amendment that would bar its application in anti-discrimination contexts? The sentence is simple: "This chapter does not establish or eliminate a defense to a claim under any federal, state or local law protecting civil rights or preventing discrimination." But we’ll see if it actually makes it into law.
If it doesn’t, RFRA will remain a loser in the court of public opinion. And also in the world of—
4. Business As we also saw in Arizona, the corporate world has almost completely shifted on this issue. RFRAs are bad for business: they make states seem unwelcoming, turn away potential customers, risk costly boycotts, and make it harder to recruit the best employees. These aren’t ideological positions; they’re economic ones, supported by reams of data.
That’s why the Indiana, Texas, and Georgia Chambers of Commerce – dominated by pro-business Republicans have all opposed RFRAs. So have business-oriented Republicans in each of those states—including the mayor of Indianapolis. (Interestingly, Coca Cola, which has long touted itself as pro-LGBT, has remained conspicuously silent in Georgia.)
That realignment is a game changer. RFRAs aren’t being debated between Democrats and Republicans. They’re being debated between pro-business Republicans and social conservative Republicans.
Incidentally, because of GOP primary politics, that latter camp includes all of the party’s likely presidential candidates. We’ll see if the rightward pandering hurts them in the general election.
Indiana isn’t being singled out because of coincidence, or media spin, or just bad timing. Rather it’s because of a very mainstream, apple-pie value: because discrimination is not the American way.