Religious freedom laws stir Dixie’s politics

Religious freedom laws stir Dixie’s politics

By Hastings Wyman –

The controversy that erupted when Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed his state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which appeared to allow business owners with moral objections to same-sex marriage to decline to serve gay customers, ended in modification of the Indiana law so that it would not discriminate against gays. The issue quickly spilled over into Southern politics.

In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) refused to sign similar legislation until it was modified to mirror a federal law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. The new version, which he has since signed, states explicitly that it cannot undermine federal, state civil rights or local civil rights laws. Arkansas business leaders were a major force in favor of modifying RFRA bills to prevent discrimination against gay people; the state’s mega-retailer Walmart was a major critic of the original legislation.

In Georgia and North Carolina, RFRA bills have stalled over concerns expressed by their governors, both Republicans, over the potential backlash and its economic consequences.

Opposition to same-sex marriage, however, is the dominant view throughout the South. Although same-sex marriage is now legal in six Southern states (AL, FL, NC, OK, SC & VA), it is significant that these resulted exclusively from court decisions, not actions of the legislature, and thus don’t have the stamp of approval from voters.  And seven Southern states (AR, GA, KY, LA, MS, TN & TX) have laws limiting legal matrimony to one man and one woman. Whether these laws will withstand the scrutiny of the US Supreme Court is the subject of a pending case.

In response to the growing legality of gay marriage, RFRA-like laws, in one form or another, are now law in 11 of the 13 Southern states. Most mirror Indiana’s original law, prior to its modification.

The political strength of evangelical Christians in the South is a major reason for the rapid spread of RFRA laws in the region, but so is the South’s long-standing conservatism on social issues.

In Kentucky, says a longtime observer of Bluegrass politics, “Evangelicals are not recognized publicly as a player in the elections.” Nevertheless, “There is no movement to make any changes in Kentucky’s [RFRA] law.” At a forum for gubernatorial candidates last week, all of them said they were in favor of the state’s RFRA. When asked if they favored changing it, as has been done in Indiana and Arkansas, they all said no.

Texas political consultant Craig Murphy (R) says, “There’s a difference between the Tea Party and the evangelicals, but not a huge distinction.” But the main reason for opposition to a modified RFRA here is that “The majority of Texans are socially conservative. I don’t think that Texas values are that different from elsewhere on this issue.”

A political operative in South Carolina says that evangelicals are still strong in the state. “They pretty much control the (Republican) party machinery, along with some old guard establishment types… Now [evangelicals] are the establishment and are on the front line trying to confront the libertarians and Tea Party types.” He notes that RFRA, which is the law here, “is not a big issue now.”

Susan MacManus, political science professor at the University of South Florida, says that in conversations with voters in Florida, her impression is that though many are opposed to same-sex marriage, “The bigger issue for the evangelicals is that Christians feel very persecuted, that they can’t speak out, that they are muzzled… All they know is the media coverage,” which they believe is one-sided against them. She also hears this “a bit from the Jewish community.” As for the evangelicals in the GOP, “They are not a majority,” says MacManus; “There’s a significant generational replacement. The 18 to 29 age group is very large. To the degree that Republicans attract them, it’s not through moral issues.”

For now, it appears that the South’s social conservatives are in control, but the RFRA modifiers, with business support, are trying to give them a fight. Stay tuned.