The 2010s have been bad times for homophobes in the United States. Same-sex marriage is now legal in more than 30 states, and polls demonstrate that Americans who favor marriage equality have become the majority: in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released in March, 59% of Americans believed gay couples should be allowed to marry. Among adults aged 18-34, the number was 74%—in other words, only one in four millennials believes same-sex couples should not be allowed to marry.
But many Republican politicians have been responding to the increasing support for gay rights not by moderating their positions, but by pandering to the Christian Right, doubling down on the GOP’s homophobia and pushing for anti-gay laws at the state level. In the minds of the Christian Right, gay marriage is being forced upon them. But while homophobic bills can rally the Republican Party’s far-right evangelical base, they can also be bad for business. In the following five states, Republicans and the Christian Right have faced a vehement backlash for supporting anti-gay “religious freedom” bills.
The late Republican Barry Goldwater, the five-term Arizona senator who lost to Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 presidential election, had nothing good to say about the Christian Right. As Goldwater saw it, the divisive anti-gay, anti-abortion, theocratic agenda of Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was terrible for the GOP. Goldwater warned, “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the party—and they’re sure trying to do so—it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise, but these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God. So they can’t and won’t compromise.”
In Indiana, it is obvious just how prophetic Goldwater’s warning was: the Christian Right’s stranglehold on the GOP remains so strong that Gov. Mike Pence is afraid to offend them no matter how much economic damage they bring to his state. In March, Pence signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which, despite Pence’s claims to the contrary, encourages businesses to deny service to gays on religious grounds. The backlash has been huge: Subaru, NASCAR, Apple, the National Basketball Association, Gap and others strongly came out against the law. The state of Connecticut announced it was officially boycotting Indiana, while San Francisco and Seattle imposed bans on city-funded travel to the Hoosier State. Just as Goldwater predicted, the Christian Right has become a major liability for the GOP, and nowhere is that more evident than in Indiana.
In February 2014, the Arizona legislature passed Senate Bill 1062, which would have allowed businesses in that state to deny service to gay people. The bill’s supporters claimed it was designed to protect religious freedom, but opponents saw Bill 1062 for what it was: blatant discrimination.
The backlash against the bill was swift. Anna Tovar, Democratic minority leader in Arizona’s GOP-dominated state senate, warned that Bill 1062 “may also open the door to discriminate based on race, familial status, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability.” Barry Broome, president of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, complained to Republican Gov. Jan Brewer that Bill 1062 could subject Arizona to painful boycotts and noted that some major businesses were threatening to leave the state. Delta Airlines and Apple, in fact, encouraged Brewer to oppose the bill. The far-right Brewer is hardly a poster child for liberalism, but she had enough sense to realize that chasing businesses away from Arizona in order to make the Christian Right happy would be foolish. Senate Bill 1062, much to the Christian Right’s dismay, died a well-deserved death when Brewer vetoed it.
In Arkansas, the Republican-dominated state legislature made the Christian Right happy when, in late March, it passed the anti-gay Arkansas House Bill 1228, aka the Conscience Protection Act. Like other anti-gay “religious freedom” bills, 1228 would have allowed businesses to openly discriminate against gay customers.
But when Apple, Gap, Subaru, Walmart (which is based in Bentonville, Arkansas), and other large companies expressed opposition to Bill 1228, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson took notice. Hutchinson, a Republican, found himself between a rock and a hard place: should he shoot Arkansas in the foot economically in order to please the Christian Right, or should he do what made economic sense even if meant offending his evangelical supporters? Hutchinson, in early April, refused to sign Bill 1228 as it was written, and instead, ended up signing Arkansas Senate Bill 975, which he said was comparable to the federal, Democrat-sponsored Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, signed into law by President Bill Clinton that year.
The last thing Louisiana needs is legislation that discourages tourism in any way, and one such piece of legislation is Louisiana House Bill 707, aka the Louisiana Marriage and Conscience Act. Proposed by Republican Rep. Mike Johnson, the bill would allow companies to openly discriminate against same-sex couples on the grounds of “religious freedom.”
Bill 707 has come under fire from the business community: IBM, which has about 800 employees in Baton Rouge, sent Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal a letter expressing “strong opposition” to the bill. And when Equality Louisiana circulated an online petition asserting that Louisiana politicians should oppose HB 707 because of its “damaging economic impact,” many business owners in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport and elsewhere signed it. But Jindal, a possible GOP presidential candidate for 2016, appears unfazed: he seems determined to sign 707 into law and score brownie points with the Christian Right no matter how badly it hurts his state economically.
In Georgia, Republican state senator Josh McCoon pandered to anti-gay zealots when he proposed Senate Bill 129, aka the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would have allowed businesses to discriminate against gay couples in that Bible Belt state. In March, Bill 129 passed the Georgia State Senate and went to the Georgia House of Representatives for examination.
But the outcry against Bill 129 was vehement: Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat, denounced Bill 129 as a threat to Atlanta’s economy, and in a letter to the Georgia House, 13 different convention and business bureaus in that state asserted that Bill 129 could cost Georgia $15 million if it became law. Bill 129, thankfully, was not approved by the Georgia House, inspiring theocrat Genevieve Wilson (assistant director of Georgia Right to Life) to issue an official statement saying she was “disappointed in this bill’s failure to pass.” McCoon, however, has vowed to revisit the issue in 2016.