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Religion vs. business: How Indiana law opened new split among conservatives (+video)

The public backlash to the Indiana and Arkansas religious freedom laws was so unexpected that Republicans are still processing how to respond. Business groups and social conservatives reacted very differently.

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    Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) signs a reworked religious freedom bill into law at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., on Thursday.
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From time to time, tensions between the business wing of the Republican party and Christian conservatives flare. But not with this heat.

On Thursday, responding to a swift and noisy backlash from corporations such as Wal-Mart, Eli Lilly, and Angie’s List, lawmakers in Indiana and Arkansas worked to free religious freedom legislation from the perception that it discriminates against gays.

Earlier in the week, the Republican governors of those states, facing withering criticism from many quarters, backtracked on the issue. Possible Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush, the “establishment candidate,” also moderated his earlier support.

But Christian conservatives who back such laws have launched a backlash of their own. While campaigning in Iowa on Wednesday, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas accused Fortune 500 companies of “running shamelessly to endorse the radical gay marriage agenda over religious liberty.”

The Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group, pushed boycotts against Angie’s List and Wal-Mart. A similar group, American Values, warned “corporate insiders” that they would be isolated by those who care more about defending churches and synagogues than the Fortune 500. Conservative Christians now say they feel intolerance toward their views.

“Pro-business Republicans and social conservatives have been able to coexist in the Republican party without too much tension, but issues like those raised by the Indiana law threaten this peaceful coexistence,” says Amy Black, a political scientist at Wheaton College in Illinois, in an e-mail.

The split, she said, is a sign of “more contention to come.”

Disputes between the two wings are nothing new. They go at least as far back as the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan united business interests and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority under one big tent, says Kevin den Dulk, director of the Henry Institute and chair of the political science department at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

For instance, conservative Christians and the business wing clashed over trade status for China, with social conservatives strenuously objecting to China’s lack of religious freedom while the wing-tip set favored economic opportunity.

Under President George W. Bush, social conservatives opposed privatizing Social Security because they feared it would force women to work. And they want to keep antiabortion issues front-and-center while the business wing would rather focus on taxes and the economy.

Still, says Mr. den Dulk, “I haven’t seen a domestic issue that has created as much conflict within the conservative movement as the issue of same-sex marriage.”

The shift in views over gay rights has occurred so quickly that the party hasn’t had time to process it, observers say.

Most Republicans oppose gay marriage, and white evangelicals are the most staunchly opposed, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Evangelicals are a very important part of the Republican coalition. They have been in the past and they remain so today,” says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. In 2008 and 2012, they accounted for 26 percent of the electorate – up 3 percentage points from 2004, he says.

Their influence varies from state to state, but they are particularly important in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa, where they make up more than 50 percent of the Republican electorate, according to Mr. Ayres, who is also an adviser to possible presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida.

It is not surprising, then, that when Indiana’s Republican Gov. Mike Pence defended his state’s religious freedom law on national television on Sunday, a slew of possible GOP presidential candidates backed him up.

But a majority of the country now favors gay marriage, including more than 60 percent of Republicans under age 30. Businesses don’t want to do anything to drive away customers or supporters in the lesbian, bisexual, gay, or transgender community.

As America’s largest business organization, the US Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement this week: “The U.S. Chamber doesn’t condone discrimination of any kind, in any form. We support those legislative leaders in Indiana and Arkansas who seek to clarify the law to protect this same principle.”

In religious freedom laws such as Indiana’s, two rights issues collide: the right to one’s religious beliefs vs. the right to not be discriminated against. Often cited is the case of a commercial baker refusing to provide a cake for a gay wedding because of his views that such a wedding violates Biblical teachings. 

On Thursday, the Indiana legislature passed a fix to their week-old religious freedom law that affirms that the law does not authorize discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. (Other categories explicitly covered by this fix include race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, or US military service.)

The new measure also clarifies that the religious freedom laws can't be used as a defense against a civil lawsuit or prosecution charging discrimination.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R), who backed the initial religious freedom bill, signed the measure on Thursday, despite pressure from social conservatives to veto it. 

Meanwhile, Arkansas lawmakers quickly overhauled their own religious freedom bill after GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson refused to sign the bill unless it was amended to mirror federal legislation. He signed the measure on Thursday.

While the tension between conservative Christians and the business wing of the GOP “is always simmering, it quite often comes under control because of elections,” says den Dulk. “Both groups perceive that they have nowhere else to go.”

Pollster Ayres agrees. It’s premature to say that one side has won or lost, he says. In the end, he believes that Republicans will reach an accommodation that both defends religious liberty and honors fair treatment for all. And they will rally behind a nominee.

“I would be very surprised if ultimately all members of the Republican coalition did not rally around the nominee. Putting Hillary Clinton in the White House does not serve the interest of Republicans.”

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