Governor Pence’s RFRA Disaster Reveals Republican Dilemma in 2016
01 Apr 2015
In one of the more dubious political moves in recent history, Governor Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act “in private,” flanked by several anti-gay lobbyists. Optics tell the story. That the outrage and backlash from Tech CEOs, business owners, sports personalities and grassroots protesters “shocked” Pence serves as a cautionary tale for Republicans running in 2016, some of whom seem to be living in a bubble. Appearing on This Week with George Stephanopoulos to do damage control by clearing up “misconceptions” about the RFRA, Pence was asked eight times if he would state definitively that this law does not discriminate against LGBT persons. Governor Pence did lots of dancing, but no answering.
No matter what misconceptions Governor Pence professes he is correcting, the possibilities of abusing the RFRA for the purposes of discrimination exist – and a number of powerful CEO’s (Apple and SalesForce to name two) are disturbed enough by the possibility that they have announced travel bans in Indiana, and pulled out of the upcoming Indy Big Data Conference that will cost the state millions. The price tag for the RFRA is growing by the day. Those with Indiana-based companies are hitting the panic button for obvious reasons. Angie’s List has already cancelled a planned expansion in the state and PayPal’s CEO has joined the backlash.
If what Pence said was true – this this law is similar to 1993 Federal Law passed by President Bill Clinton, why the broader language in this one? Per Esquire’s Charles Pierce, “[t]he history of this bill begins almost to the day on which Indiana’s attempts to ban marriage equality failed in the courts. Its primary supporters admitted its real purpose right from jump.” Pierce also makes an excellent point:
“And, if its purpose was as anodyne as Pence now makes it out to be, and if Pence is as blindsided by the backlash as he’s now pretending to be, then why did he sign it in a secret ceremony in which he was surrounded by some of the state’s most serious professional homophobes?”
Republican Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, likely worried about those attending Final Four events next weekend and the fallout to his city, has “called on the state to add sexual orientation to its civil rights law.” Ballard has also “banned discrimination by Christian businesses receiving city funds.” According to the Indianapolis Star, Ballard stated:
“Our city thrives because we have welcomed and embraced diversity. And RFRA threatens what thousands have spent decades building,” Ballard said on Monday. “Discrimination is wrong. And I hope that message is being heard loud and clear at our Statehouse.”
This was on the front page of the Indianapolis Star yesterday, Indiana’s largest newspaper:
Even FOX News anchor Bret Baier debunked Governor Pence’s claim that the RFRA simply echoed legislation that had been passed in 1993, or that it was similar to that on the books in 19 other states. An excerpt of the Bret Baier’s remarks from the FOX News transcript follows:
BAIER: “…In specific terms, Indiana’s law deals with a person who can claim religious persecution but that includes corporations, for profit entities and it could also be used as a defense in a civil suit that does not involve the government. That is broader than the other laws. This is where it’s a little different in Indiana’s case. You saw governor Mike Pence try to defend the law and say it’s just like the 1993 federal law where it’s just like 19 other states, but as you look in the fine print, it’s not really, and it may be something that Indiana deals with in specifics to line up with the others.”
Pence has damaged the reputation of his own state and for what? As of Monday, he cancelled a number of public appearances, seeming to be in hiding. By Tuesday, Pence went on FOX News and vowed to “clarify” the law, saying it is “not a license to discriminate.” But if you listen to his remarks here, they travel in circles and offer nothing he hasn’t already said.
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson was about to sign similar legislation last night, but upon observing the reaction to Pence’s law, has asked state legislators to go back the drawing board and bring the bill they crafted into line with the 1993 federal law. Smart decision. Arkansas passing their own RFRA wouldn’t have made the one in Indiana any more popular. It would have meant CEO’s, other state leaders and grassroots activists had two states to boycott.
Why did Governor Pence think this would pass under the radar in the first place? Reportedly, Pence has aspirations beyond the Governor’s mansion and must have thought that this move was going to burnish his Conservative bona fides. But all of this points to the dilemma facing Republican candidates going into the 2016 presidential race.
By doubling down in order to maintain their religious base, Republicans are at risk of losing everyone else. There are many fiscal conservatives in our nation who, even if they are not social progressives, have a more tolerant, “live and let live” attitude toward those with whom they may not agree. The trend of tolerance toward gay marriage is on the upswing and laws like the RFRA are out of touch with much of the nation.
Similarly, the first bills proposed by this new Congress were about restricting a woman’s right to choose. It is almost as though those currently in charge of the Republican Party see the world changing around them and are screaming out for a time machine.
There is a reason Republicans have only won the popular vote once in the last six election cycles. A number of potential 2016 Republican candidates are staying mute on the RFRA. Perhaps they too have read the writing on the wall. Rand Paul, for example has been lauding his outreach to Millennials. They will represent 30% of the voting populace in 2016. They may not be knee-jerk liberals, but does Governor Pence or his colleagues think the youth of today, who grew up with friends who are openly gay are suddenly going to reject those they have befriended and like, or love, to embrace this kind of rhetoric or policy?
Republicans must also attract the votes of Independents to win and many of them are far more progressive socially than the current Republican leadership seem to believe. Merely bashing the opposition and using familiar, bellicose bromides will not do the trick at the voting booth. Neither will circuitous and vague reasoning such as we have witnessed by Governor Pence this past week. Signing this law in private also set off huge alarm bells. If Republicans are genuine about “tolerance” and outreach to “make more room in the tent,” this is wrong way to go about it.
Religious freedom is certainly something to be protected. But when one person’s “protection” comes at another’s restriction, rejection or discrimination, however covert, some soul searching is required.
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