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In backlash to Indiana law, an astonishing reversal in American politics (+video)

A decade ago, Republicans could bank on opposition to gay marriage as a winning issue at the ballot box. Today, the backlash to Indiana's religious freedom law suggests how quickly and dramatically that has changed.

Just a decade ago, opposition to same-sex marriage and gay and lesbian rights were a political winner for Republican candidates in many states.

But the current maelstrom over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has dramatically, almost inexplicably, unveiled an altered political landscape few envisioned even just a few years ago. Today, same-sex marriage is legally sanctioned in 37 states and the District of Columbia, and solid majorities – majorities trending upward every year – indicate the country is beginning to accept an expanded view of who can legally pledge themselves to each other in marriage.  

How did the political landscape change so much in such a short amount of time?

Cultural and political observers point primarily to the rise of social media, which increased the visibility of gay and lesbian people in an intimate person-to-person way. The result has been a new generation of more-tolerant voters who present a rising challenge for Republicans.

“Now you have a situation in which there’s a much steeper price for Republican lawmakers who take action to motivate their base on this issue,” says John Ullyot, a GOP strategist and managing director of High Lantern Group, a management consulting firm in Washington. “Any position that is seen as intolerant for LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] people – now that’s a turn off for many swing voters, for many in the center, and for many moderate Republicans.”

The federal version of the RFRA passed as a bipartisan piece of legislation in 1993 and was signed by then President Clinton. But the new Indiana law, as well as a bill passed Tuesday by Arkansas, have unleashed a torrent of criticism, particularly from those who believe key differences between those states’ versions and the federal one could permit discrimination against same-sex couples in religiously-owned retail shops.

On Wednesday, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) sent that state’s version of an RFRA back to lawmakers, telling them to either recall it or amend it to match the federal law. Facing a backlash that included Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer and an economic juggernaut for its home state of Arkansas, Governor Hutchinson said he was considering an executive order that would make “Arkansas a place of tolerance.”

“This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial,” Hutchinson said at a press conference. “But these are not ordinary times.”

The opposition to the new Indiana law has been led by some of the nation’s top business leaders – including, incredibly to some, red state-associated powerhouses like Wal-Mart and NASCAR. The outpouring and vehemence of the criticism has stunned many Republican politicians, including Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. “Was I expecting this kind of backlash? Heavens no,” he said at a press conference Tuesday.

As recently as the 2004 elections, however, Republicans were using opposition to same-sex marriage to turn elections in their favor. They put same-sex marriage initiatives on the ballots in 11 key states to drive Republican turnout. Polls showed deep discomfort, even among moderates, with the issue.

In Ohio, especially, the “wedge” strategy seemed to work. Some of the voters who turned out to support a ballot initiative to ban gay marriage appeared to provide Republican President George W. Bush with his thin margin of victory. Almost 62 percent of voters decided to ban gay marriage; President Bush squeaked by with 51 percent of the vote. The state’s 20 electoral votes put him over the top to win reelection.

Since then, social media has been a major factor in radically changing people’s views of homosexuality in the course of a single decade, Mr. Ullyot suggests.  

“Thanks to social media, more and more Americans are connected to LGBT friends and family in a way they were not over a decade ago,” he says. “They’re able to see them, interact with them, and see them just as people with similar emotions and similar aspirations – it pulled down the veil, as it were, as more and more Americans got to know them.”

Even among young evangelicals, the politics of gay and lesbians issues have shifted. Conservative evangelical Christians remain by far as a group the most opposed to same-sex marriage, with only 1 of 5 expressing support.

Still, in 2004, only 1 in 10 evangelical Christians expressed support for same-sex marriage. Today, among evangelical Millennials, 43 percent favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute last year.

“We’re headed to the point where a political candidate who is perceived as anti-gay at the presidential level will never connect with people under 30 years old,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, founder and president of North Star Opinion Research in Alexandria, Va., at a Monitor breakfast Tuesday. He noted that more than 60 percent of Republican Millennials support gay marriage.

This week, most of the likely GOP presidential candidates expressed their support for Indiana’s religious freedom law, which proponents insist is not about discriminating against LGBT Americans in the public sphere, pointing to the original bipartisan consensus on such laws.  

“This is simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said on Monday. “To be able to be people of conscience. I just – I think once the facts are established, people aren’t going to see this as discriminatory at all.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, however, at least touched on what opponents fear about the religious freedom law: that it will allow religious businesses to turn away gay and lesbian customers.

“I think the fundamental question in some of these laws is: should someone be discriminated against because of their religious views,” Senator Rubio said Monday. “So, no one here is saying it should be legal to deny someone service at a restaurant or at a hotel because of their sexual orientation, I think that’s a consensus view in America. The flip side of it is: should a photographer be punished for refusing to do a wedding that their faith teaches them is not one that is valid in the eyes of God? And so, I think these laws are trying to get at that.”

For a candidate like Jeb Bush, the stance makes political sense on some levels. Many Republicans see him as being too moderate, and to survive next year’s primaries, he may have to tack to the right. But that could come at a cost, says Ullyot.

“The decision by all of the likely GOP 2016 candidates, including Jeb Bush, to support the Indiana law unamended, demonstrates how the party is playing by the old rules,” says Ullyot, who has worked on Republican Senate campaigns. “They have not realized how much the country has changed on the issue, and, by sticking with base voters on a losing issue, they are playing with fire for the general election.”

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