Republicans with an eye on the 2016 presidential election have rallied to defend Indiana’s controversial “religious freedom” law over the past day. They argued that it will prevent individuals and businesses from being forced to violate their religious beliefs and rejected the notion, amid increasingly escalated opposition, that it could be used to discriminate against the LGBT community.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio all defended Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who signed Indiana’s bill into law last week. The Republicans’ comments were more evidence of the thorniness that the issue of LGBT rights continues to present for the Republican Party, as candidates move to lure support from the socially conservative and evangelical wing of the party.
“I think if you, if they actually got briefed on the law, that they wouldn’t be blasting this law. I think Governor Pence has done the right thing,” Bush told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Monday.
“Florida has a law like this. Bill Clinton signed a law like this at the federal level. This is simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs, to have, to be able to be people of conscience. I just think once the facts are established, people aren’t going to see this as discriminatory at all.”
All signs point to the issue of LGBT rights being a “flashpoint” among Republicans as the 2016 campaign ramps up. More Republicans than ever are saying that gay marriage should be a constitutionally protected right. The younger Republican crowd is done with the moral lecturing and favors opening up the party’s umbrella. But Republican candidates will still have to tack to the right on the issue during a fiercely competitive primary in which they will try to appeal to the more evangelical and socially conservative wings of the party.
A Pew Research poll last year found 68 percent of Republicans believe businesses should be able to refuse service based on religious objections. That includes 71 percent of self-identified evangelicals.
The 2016ers’ comments came as two states, Washington and Connecticut, moved to virtually “boycott” Indiana, as their governors banned state-funded travel to the Hoosier State. Arkansas’ House of Representatives is set to vote on similar legislation on Tuesday, and Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia are considering similar bills. The law’s supporters have said it helps protect basic religious freedoms, despite charges that it could help promote anti-LGBT discrimination by businesses.
“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,” Rubio said Monday during an appearance on Fox News. “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?”
Critics of the law have pointed out the subtle differences between Indiana’s situation and other states’, as well as the federal law. As The Atlantic points out, the Indiana law allows businesses to claim a right to “the free exercise of religion,” something only two other states’ laws permit. The federal law also doesn’t contain any such language.
The Indiana statute also holds language that recognizes the rights of for-profit businesses and corporations to have “free exercise of religion” rights matching those of individuals, churches, or other religious entities.
Cruz, who is the only declared major Republican candidate of 2016 so far, issued a statement on Monday commending Pence for his “support of religious freedom,” especially in the face of fierce opposition.”
“There was a time, not too long ago, when defending religious liberty enjoyed strong bipartisan support,” Cruz said.
“Alas, today we are facing a concerted assault on the First Amendment, on the right of every American to seek out and worship God according to the dictates of his or her conscience. Governor Pence is holding the line to protect religious liberty in the Hoosier State. Indiana is giving voice to millions of courageous conservatives across this country who are deeply concerned about the ongoing attacks upon our personal liberties. I'm proud to stand with Mike, and I urge Americans to do the same.”
A spokeswoman for Walker, meanwhile, said he “believes in broad religious freedom and the right for Americans to exercise their religion and act on their conscience” as a “matter of principle.”
Perry also added his voice to the defenders early Tuesday morning in a tweet:
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.