Battle between religious and gay rights splits GOP states
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Republican lawmakers upset about the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage have advanced measures in about a dozen states this year that could strengthen protections for those who refuse on religious grounds to provide services to same-sex couples.
The bills could benefit court clerks, photographers, florists, bakers, wedding-hall operators and others who say gay matrimony goes against their beliefs.
For a party already being torn apart by the presidential contest, the state legislative efforts have exposed deep rifts between the GOP’s social conservatives and its pro-business wing. Business leaders worry that such measures will allow discrimination and scare away companies and major events.
So far, only a few proposals have become law. Those include narrowly tailored protections shielding Florida clergy from having to perform same-sex weddings and college religious organizations in Kansas from losing aid.
A far more sweeping one was signed into law Tuesday by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, despite objections from some major corporations. It creates a religious shield from government penalties for an array of people and organizations, including marriage-license clerks, adoption agencies, counselors and more than a dozen categories of businesses that provide wedding-related services. It applies not only to those with religious beliefs about gay marriage, but also to those who believe that sex outside marriage is wrong and that sexual identity is determined at birth.
Other broadly written proposals have failed, stalled or are still working their way through legislatures. Some examples:
— Republican Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia last week vetoed a religious protection bill passed by the GOP-led House, siding with top business executives who threatened boycotts and dire economic consequences.
— A GOP-passed bill shielding clergy and religious groups from participating in gay marriages was vetoed last week by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, who cited opposition from corporate leaders.
— In Tennessee, a coalition that includes the American Counseling Association launched an online ad campaign against the Republican House speaker over a bill that would let counselors turn away patients based on religious beliefs. The ad warns: “Businesses won’t come to a state that discriminates.”
— In Missouri, scores of activists rallied at the Capitol to protest a proposed constitutional amendment that would prohibit penalties against those who decline on religious grounds to provide wedding-related services to same-sex couples. The state Chamber of Commerce and Industry also came out against it.
“This is a unique issue because two of the primary bases of the Republican Party are both the business interest and the social conservative. It’s rare, but occasionally those interests are not aligned,” said Missouri state Rep. Elijah Haahr, chairman of the committee considering the measure.
In several states, major businesses and sports organizations — including Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, Walt Disney Co., the NFL and the NCAA — have joined lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists in raising concerns that such measures could legalize discrimination.
Some religious leaders have countered that it is the faithful who face discrimination for living according to their beliefs. They cite government fines and lawsuits against florists, bakers and photographers who declined to do work for same-sex weddings.
“Good and commonsense bills that simply underscore or protect freedoms that we’ve had since the founding of our country are being attacked by large corporations seeking to thwart the democratic process,” said Kellie Fiedorek, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based group that has backed religious-objection legislation and led court fights in various states.
More than 60 state legislative measures allowing for religious refusals at the expense of LGBT rights have been introduced, according to the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign.
“We’re seeing definitely a greater number this year,” including many with consequences that would be far-reaching, said Sara Warbelow, the campaign’s legal director.
The battle came to the national forefront last spring when Indiana and Arkansas passed religious protection measures, then revised them after a backlash from businesses. Social conservatives intensified their push after the Supreme Court ruled in June that gay marriage is legal everywhere in the U.S.
Supporters say the measures are necessary to protect people such as Robert and Cynthia Gifford, who were fined $13,000 for violating New York’s anti-discrimination law after they declined to host a lesbian wedding at their Liberty Ridge Farm north of Albany in 2013.
The Giffords stopped hosting weddings altogether. But after recently losing an appeal, Cynthia Gifford said they plan to resume their wedding business. They will allow gay couples to get married on their property without personally participating in the ceremonies.
“It would have been nice to be protected by the law,” she said. “This has been financially tragic for our family.”
Opponents of religious protection measures argue they could harm states financially by discouraging major businesses from hosting events or expanding operations in places seen as hostile toward gay employees or customers.
The economic effect of such measures is open to debate.
A survey by the tourism promotion group Visit Indy found that Indiana’s new law played a role in 12 conventions going elsewhere, costing Indianapolis as much as $60 million in economic benefits. But that’s just a fraction of the 1,100 conventions bid on by the city.
Indianapolis still reaped a record $4.5 billion in economic benefits from tourism in 2015. It also booked more future convention business than any year before, thanks to a surge from Indiana-based organizations that offset a decline from out-of-state businesses, said Visit Indy Vice President Chris Gahl.
While some Republican lawmakers this year have pointed to Indiana as a reason for caution, others have brushed aside threats of boycotts. In Georgia, the governor’s veto rankled many religious conservatives.
“This is why people are angry with the politicians of our nation,” said Tanya Ditty, Georgia director of Concerned Women for America, a Christian group. “They are not elected to represent Hollywood values, nor Wall Street values. They’re elected to represent the voters of Georgia, and that does not preclude people of faith.”
Associated Press writers Summer Ballentine in Jefferson City, Kathleen Foody in Atlanta and Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, contributed to this report.
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