Indiana, Arkansas, and other 'religious freedom' laws: Trouble for the GOP

The governors of Indiana and Arkansas had to act quickly to stem the backlash against 'religious freedom' laws. Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says too many fellow Republicans are 'fighting for laws that fly in the face of equality and freedom.'

Brian Chilson/AP
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signs a reworked religious freedom bill into law after it passed in the House at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Thursday, April 2, 2015.

The governors of Indiana and Arkansas – Republicans Mike Pence and Asa Hutchinson – likely are spending Easter weekend wondering what they might have done to avert the adverse political wave that rolled them over this past week.

It was worse for Indiana’s Gov. Pence, who had to backtrack on the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” he’d just signed, calling on state legislators to “clarify” the law so that it no longer so obviously allowed for discrimination of gays and lesbians.

Arkansas Gov. Hutchinson, learning from Pence’s experience, quickly said he’d veto that state’s RFRA bill unless lawmakers wrote in that same clarification. That his own son had signed a petition against the bill no doubt got his attention.

"The issue has become divisive because our nation remains split on how to balance the diversity of our culture with the traditions and firmly held religious convictions," Hutchison said at a press conference. "It has divided families, and there is clearly a generational gap on this issue. My son Seth signed the petition asking me, Dad, the governor, to veto this bill."

That generational gap was a clear point former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made Friday in a Washington Post op-ed column excoriating his own Republican Party on the issue.

"As an American, I’m incredibly concerned about what happened in Indiana this week and the threat of similar laws being passed in other states,” Mr. Schwarzenegger wrote. “As a Republican, I’m furious.”

“I know plenty of Republicans who are sensible and driven to solve problems for America. They believe in Reagan’s vision of a big tent where everyone is welcome. This message isn’t for them,” he wrote. “It is for Republicans who choose the politics of division over policies that improve the lives of all of us. It is for Republicans who have decided to neglect the next generation of voters. It is for Republicans who are fighting for laws that fly in the face of equality and freedom.”

"There are so many real problems that need solving. But distracting, divisive laws like the one Indiana initially passed aren’t just bad for the country, they’re also bad for our party,” Schwarzenegger continued. “In California, the GOP has seen the danger of focusing on the wrong issues. In 2007, Republicans made up nearly 35 percent of our registered voters. By 2009, our share dropped to 31 percent, and today, it is a measly 28 percent. That sharp drop started just after the divisive battle over Proposition 8 [which banned same-sex marriage]. Maybe that’s a coincidence, but there is no question that our party is losing touch with our voters, especially with the younger ones who are growing the registration rolls.”

(In 2013, the United States Supreme Court effectively killed Prop. 8.)

The struggle to balance religious freedoms with civil and personal rights continues in other states, where local and national businesses have become major players.

In Georgia, the Coca-Cola Company (which is based in Atlanta) took a firm stand against that state’s RFRA.

“Coca-Cola does not support any legislation that discriminates, in our home state of Georgia or anywhere else,” Coke said in a statement. “Coca-Cola values and celebrates diversity. We believe policies that would allow a business to refuse service to an individual based upon discrimination of any kind, does not only violate our Company's core values, but would also negatively affect our consumers, customers, suppliers, bottling partners and associates.”

Social media have been alight with comment – most all of it critical of various RFRA proposals.

Politics may have exploded over the issue, but the pro-gay-marriage wave in recent years seems to be accelerating. (Same-sex marriage now is legal in 37 states and the District of Columbia; more than 60 percent of Republican Millennials support gay marriage, including 43 percent of evangelical Millennials).

As Govs. Pence and Hutchinson found out – and as former governor Schwarzenegger warns – it’s become a very teachable moment for the GOP.

“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,” Republican strategist John Ullyot told the Monitor’s Harry Buinius the other day. “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.”

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