Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, reluctantly and belatedly, gets it. After flailing around for a few days as he tried to quell the furor over his state’s new religious freedom law, Pence finally asked his legislature to go back and clean up the mess.
“As I said last week, had this law been about legalizing discrimination, I would’ve vetoed it. This law does not give anyone a license to discriminate. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana does not give anyone the right to deny services to anyone in this state,” Pence said at a damage-control news conference this week.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson gets it, too. Rather than sign a similar law, he also asked lawmakers to go back to the drawing board, insisted Arkansas should “be known as a state that does not discriminate but understands tolerance,” and noted that his own son had asked him to veto the measure. It’s a generational thing, Hutchinson pointed out.
North Carolina’s Pat McCrory said he would not sign yet another bill attempting to give legal standing to those who refuse to provide services on purported religious grounds. “What is the problem they’re trying to solve?” he asked.
What all three Republican governors clearly understand is that the country has reached a tipping point. It’s simply no longer politically acceptable to couch discrimination as a religious right, to, however indirectly, send the message that anti-gay sentiment can be justified. That message rang loud and clear after Pence signed the law, from companies and sports leagues and mayors and countless individuals who saw right through the measure’s wording and threatened to boycott Indiana over its underlying intent.
Critics of the backlash — and yes, that group still includes Pence — say the reaction has been overblown, that the new wave of laws and proposed laws reflect important principles enshrined in the First Amendment and reiterated in federal law and statutes previously adopted in many states, including Louisiana.
But it’s only overblown if you disregard the subtle differences between those laws and the current round, which extend protection from individuals to businesses — something Louisiana’s law explicitly rejects — and expand the scope from government action to private disagreements brought before civil courts.
More crucially, it’s only overblown if you ignore the current context.
These laws are popping up around the country amid widespread acceptance and legalization of same-sex marriage and just months before the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to declare such unions legal across the country. They’re emerging at the same time as a handful of florists, cake-bakers and photographers are claiming to be victims of political correctness, simply for being asked to do their jobs. They’re being pushed by political activists who seem singularly focused on demeaning gay people and same-sex couples. They’re a last gasp, an attempt to chalk distaste up to religious conviction, just as some segregationists did back in the day.
That’s what all those critics are reacting to, what they’re rejecting en masse.
It’s kind of amazing to watch the uproar, to realize that in just a few short years we’ve gone from watching politicians pretending to be less tolerant than they actually are — see President Barack Obama’s alleged evolution on same-sex marriage, when we all knew he was for it from the get-go — to witnessing judges, corporations and, at long last, politicians scrambling to assert their open-mindedness and compassion.
The one place this isn’t happening is in the Republican presidential field. And that brings us to another governor — ours. All the candidates are defending these laws, but as usual, Gov. Bobby Jindal is positioning himself as particularly pious.
And no wonder. Jindal picked sides a long time ago. He defends “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson’s right to make hateful comments about gay people without ever suggesting he might disagree. He backs the idea of a constitutional amendment to allow states to disregard the Supreme Court’s anticipated rejection of state same-sex marriage bans. He wears his lack of introspection as a badge of honor.
“I know it is popular to evolve on this issue,” he recently told a gathering of pastors in Iowa. “I’m not evolving.”
He’s not the only Louisiana politician to assume that stance, of course, just the most prominent. Attorney General Buddy Caldwell recently opted into a lawsuit challenging the federal mandate that Louisiana companies extend family and medical leave to legally married same-sex partners.
In fact, while politicians across the country are repositioning themselves on the right side of history, we’ve seen remarkably little official evolution in these parts.
Kind of makes you wonder when, or if, Louisiana will ever catch up.