Courting conservatives in Atlanta on Thursday, likely GOP presidential contender Jeb Bush threw his support behind efforts to allow businesses and individuals to refuse services to gay people on religious grounds, arguing that while couples in "long-term committed relationships" deserve respect, others "have a right" to discriminate.
Though Bush did not explicitly endorse a proposed measure in the Georgia legislature that would allow such discrimination, he expressed sympathy for the movement to sanction religiously-based discrimination.
“I don’t know about the law, but religious freedom is a serious issue, and it’s increasingly so, and I think people that act on their conscience shouldn’t be discriminated against, for sure,” Bush told reporters, speaking on the steps of the Georgia Statehouse. “There should be protections, and so, as it relates to marriage equality — and that may change, the Supreme Court may change that. That automatically then shifts the focus to people of conscience, and, I don’t know, have their faith make — they want to act on their faith, and may not be able to be employed for example.”
The former Florida governor added, “People have a right to do that, just as we need to be respectful for people who are in long-term committed relationships. Sorting that out is important.”
Bush's remarks echo the statement he released after a court ruling paved the path for marriage equality to take effect in Florida earlier this year.
"I hope that we can show respect for the good people on all sides of the gay and lesbian marriage issue – including couples making lifetime commitments to each other who are seeking greater legal protections and those of us who believe marriage is a sacrament and want to safeguard religious liberty," Bush said at the time.
Bush's acknowledgement of committed gay couples and his use on Thursday of the gay-friendly term "marriage equality" underscore that Bush has adopted a different tone on the issue than some of his party's most strident social conservatives. Still, however, he personally opposes the right of gay couples to marry. After BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins dubbed Bush 2016's "gay-friendly Republican" -- pointing to the array of pro-gay figures in his orbit and even quoting anonymous Bush associates who claim he's evolved on the marriage equality -- Bush reaffirmed his support for "traditional marriage" during his appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Since then, Bush has hired Jordan Sekulow, an ardent evangelical whose American Center for Law and Justice has defended the criminalization of gay sex internationally, to serve as an emissary to conservatives.
While Bush may realize that his party has all but lost its fight against marriage equality, his emphasis on "religious liberty" points to the next front in the gay rights battle. As marriage equality has taken effect throughout much of the nation, conservatives lawmakers have responded with a spate of measures aiming to protect those who would discriminate against gay couples on religious grounds. Even if he's not inclined to back specific proposals just yet, Bush has clearly taken note of the trend, and shows every sign that he buys the right's religious liberty narrative.
As LGBT rights advocates note, however, that brand of discrimination contravenes the well-established precedent that businesses and individuals offering services on the public market must adhere to generally applicable non-discrimination policies. At the end of the day, license-to-discriminate legislation isn't about recognizing religious rights. It's about creating special ones.