The movement among social conservatives to enact state “religious liberty” laws, which would allow businesses or individuals to refuse to provide services to same-sex couples, began last year in Indiana, but it has become a mostly Southern controversy. According to the Human Rights Campaign, this year some 200 anti-LGBT (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders) measures have been introduced in state legislatures across the nation; 120 of them in eight Southern states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia.
Though the trend has been concentrated in the South, it has received national attention. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have criticized the religious liberty laws.
On the GOP side, however, the candidates have mostly remained silent, probably conscious of the split over the issue between two of the major Republican constituencies, business and evangelicals. While Donald Trump has not so far waded into these issues in a major way, a survey by Quinnipiac University poll found that a staggering 91% of his supporters believe that their “beliefs and values are under attack,” suggesting the fertile ground for both Trump and the anti-same sex marriage movement in the region where the New Yorker swept the primaries.
Part of this frustration may stem from the fact that, like the right to have an abortion, same-sex marriage was accomplished not by state or federal lawmakers responding to the will of the voters, but by US Supreme Court rulings. Thus, religious people who tend to take their religion seriously and their Bible more or less literally believe these important social changes have been imposed upon them.
In North Carolina, the latest volley in the battle came when rock star Bruce Springsteen canceled a concert in Greensboro over the weekend, citing the new law signed by Gov. Pat McCrory (R) that covers transgenders’ use of public restrooms and also prevents localities from enacting certain civil rights protections for the LGBT community. Perhaps more importantly, some 120 corporations have demanded that North Carolina repeal the law. One of them PayPal, canceled plans to build a facility in Charlotte that would have employed 400 people. (The North Carolina Values Coalition, which supported the new law, noted that PayPal is moving into Cuba, despite its human rights violations.)
In addition, several federal agencies are considering whether to withhold funds from North Carolina because of the law. Moreover, some states and cities have ordered employees not to visit North Carolina until the law is repealed.
The partisan nature of this issue in North Carolina was underscored when the state’s Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper (D), who is running against McCrory (R) this fall, declined to defend the new law in court, calling it “a national embarrassment.”
Truth be told, it was a difficult issue for McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor who is associated with the GOP’s establishment wing. As a candidate for reelection, he would be hard put to willingly alienate social conservatives, a major part of the Republican base that he must depend on.
Ken Fernandez, director of the Elon University Poll, went into the field this past weekend with a survey on bill. “It’s tough to ask about,” says Fernandez, noting that most discussion has focused on transgendered persons use of public restrooms, which “is what drew the legislature to call a special session. They called it a public safety issue.” But he adds, “There are other parts as well”…, including the issue of “local governments being able to govern themselves.” Concludes Fernandez, “It’s not a very bloody war, but it is a battle.”
In Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant (R) quickly signed legislation that would allow businesses, pastors and other counselors to refuse service to gay couples based on religious objections. The measure also declares that gender is determined at the time of birth and that businesses can decide who can use restrooms, dressing rooms and locker rooms.
In Alabama, a religious liberty bill is pending in the legislature. In addition to covering merchants, it would permit child-care and child-placement agencies, funded by the state, to refuse to provide services to LGBT families, based on religious beliefs.
But Alabama lawmakers have more on their minds these days than same-sex couples. Into the usual mix of the state’s socially conservative politics and politicians, after publication of “inappropriate” emails from Gov. Robert Bentley (R) to a long-time female staffer, state Rep. Ed Henry (R) initiated impeachment proceedings against the governor for, among other grounds, “offenses of moral turpitude.” In addition, House Speaker Mike Hubbard (R) been indicted on 23 ethics charges. “Alabama of late has replaced Louisiana as perhaps the most dysfunctional state in the South,” says Marty Connors, a former state GOP chairman.
Although Connors says, “There is more sanctimony going on in Alabama right now than there is sugar in a pecan pie,” he doubts the impeachment will succeed. “Most legislators don’t want to go on record indicting anyone… Bentley is not the only lawmaker in Montgomery who’s had a girlfriend.” Bentley and his wife divorced last fall after a 50-year marriage.
In Georgia, events have taken a different turn. Gov. Nathan Deal (R), under heavy pressure from businesses, both in- and outside the Peach State, decided to veto the legislature’s religious liberty bill. As it sat on Deal’s desk, not only did major corporations object to the bill, but the National Football League (NFL) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) both indicated that they might refuse to hold events in the state if the measure became law.
In his veto message, Deal said, “Our people work side by side without regard to the color of our skins, or the religion we adhere to. We are working to make life better for our families and our communities. That is the character of Georgia. I intend to do my part to keep it that way. For that reason, I will veto [the religious liberty bill].”
The proposal received heavy backing from religious groups. The Faith and Freedom Coalition conducted robo-calls supporting the measure and the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, 1.3 million members strong, came out energetically for the bill. On the other side, 156 clergy from “mainstream” Protestant denominations, including 29 Baptists, signed a letter opposing the measure. Thirty-one rabbis also signed it. The state’s two Catholic bishops issued a statement endorsing the bill, but added, “[W]e do not support any implementation … that will discriminate against any individual.”
Deal’s veto of the religious liberty bill “is very unlikely to be over-ridden,” says an Atlanta insider. It would take a two-thirds vote. No Democrats would vote to override, nor would a number of Republicans from Atlanta’s well-to-do northern suburbs. It would only take three-fifths to convene a special session to take up the issue, but the legislature’s leadership reportedly wants to wait until next year to take up the veto override.
“It’s the business wing versus the religious wing,” said the Atlanta insider. “I guess the business wing is winning down here.”
In several other Southern states, a more moderate view has also prevailed.
In Arkansas last year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) signed a religious liberty bill only after the legislature made some changes he requested to bring the bill more into line with federal law. In a news conference, Hutchinson noted that the issue divides generations, pointing out that his own son had signed a petition asking him to veto the bill.
In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley (R) said that a bill requiring transgenders to use the public restroom corresponding to their gender at birth “is not a battle that we’ve seen is needed in South Carolina,” reported The State newspaper. “It’s not something that we see that citizens are asking for.”
In Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) objected to a bill denoting who could use school bathrooms and locker rooms, and it subsequently died in committee. He is currently pondering whether to sign recently passed legislation making the Bible the state book, a measure he has expressed doubts about. Less symbolic is a bill making its way through the legislature that would allow counselors and therapists to refuse to see clients if their cases go against their principles. The measure would, however, require them to refer the patients to professionals who would treat them.
Kentucky lawmakers split the difference in the aftermath of county clerk Kim Davis’s refusal to sign marriage license applications for same-sex couples. When court rulings favored same-sex couples, the legislature passed, and Gov. Matt Bevin (R) signed, a bill that created a new marriage license form that allows applicants to check bride, groom or spouse. Moreover, the clerk’s signature is not required.
Democrats are also confronting the issue. In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), a former national Democratic chairman and a close ally of Hillary Clinton, vetoed the religious liberty bill that passed the legislature. McAuliffe also vetoed another bill – same church, different pew – that would have allowed parents to object to reading books with sexually explicit passages.
In conservative Oklahoma, the political sensitivity of social issues was made clear in an email that the Oklahoma state Democratic chairman sent to party officials: “DO NOT ISSUE RELEASES ON THE FOLLOWING AND REMOVE FACEBOOK POSTS ON THE FOLLOWING,” a list that included, among others, “sexual orientation bills, abortion, Planned Parenthood… ”
In this hotly contested election year, look for these and related issues to continue finding expression in both the legislative and campaign spheres. For better or for worse.