The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The political war over gay culture is over, and the gays won

Demonstrators gather at Monument Circle to protest a controversial religious freedom bill recently signed by Governor Mike Pence, during a rally in Indianapolis March 28, 2015. (REUTERS/Nate Chute)
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In a press conference Tuesday morning, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) announced that he was asking his state's legislature to amend a bill it passed last week to make explicit that discrimination against same-sex couples by businesses is not acceptable. That had emerged as the key point of contention following the passage of so-called "religious freedom" legislation, with liberal and gay groups arguing that the law would allow precisely that type of discrimination (thanks in part to Indiana's lack of protections elsewhere). Putting a fine point on it, Pence embraced inclusivity, saying, "I don’t think anyone should ever be mistreated because of who they are or who they love."

Pence is a conservative governor of a conservative state, who today offered his support for same-sex relationships. It's clear that some hard-to-delineate segment of support for the Indiana measure stemmed from the desire to express opposition to same-sex couples, and Pence signed that bill into law. But now, Pence wants to be clear: He opposes intolerance toward gays. And that's significant.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) says his state will "correct" the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, saying the law "does not give anyone a license deny services to gay and lesbian couples." (Video: Reuters)

Mind you, Tuesday's move wasn't undertaken out of the goodness of Pence's heart. There has been ferocious public backlash against the bill, including criticism from the business sector. Apple's Tim Cook spoke out against it, as did Angie's List (despite its CEO having been a big Pence backer). So, too, did the NCAA, which had offered concerns about the bill in advance of this weekend's college basketball Final Four in Indianapolis. Pence didn't do much to mask the role the NCAA's opposition likely played, calling for an amendment by the end of the week -- that is, before tip-off.

Over the weekend, we noted one reason that the Indiana bill saw an outcry that wasn't shared by similar legislation in other states: Timing. The chart below shows clearly that the Indiana law came after public opinion had shifted in favor of gay marriage, after most states allowed the practice, and after Arizona vetoed a similar bill (having received similar pushback). A poll last year from the Public Religion Research Institute indicates that the public opposes allowing businesses to deny service to gay couples. The political paradigm has changed.

That the bill passed with the loophole that Pence both denies and wants to close suggests that the culture war over homosexuality is still brewing. But the response should make clear that it's gasping for air.

Public opposition to the bill drowned out support for it, but businesses likely made the difference. Apple is a fairly liberal company; Angie's List is not. Accenture and Eli Lilly and Levis aren't exactly known for staking out positions on the far left of the political spectrum. That the NCAA turned the screws even slightly in the state that houses its headquarters -- and which must be one of the states most friendly to its product (see: Hoosiers) -- seems, stepping back a bit, to be remarkable. I mean, NASCAR opposed the bill. Being anti-gay is bad for business, and being bad for business is bad politics.

Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) signed a controversial religious freedom bill into law on March 26, 2015. The Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey explains what's in that law and why there's so much opposition to it. (Video: Pamela Kirkland/The Washington Post)

The issue of same-sex relationships will come up again, especially as the 2016 Republican presidential primaries approach. Indiana's law is the sort of thing that offers a safe space for 2016 candidates, allowing them to avoid having to speak out against gay marriage if they don't want to (some weren't worried about it) but to still appeal to the most conservative element of the base. And, sure enough, most offered their support for Indiana's bill. Whether or not the more viable of those candidates criticize Pence's call for amendment remains to be seen, though.

But the battle in Indiana is over. And barring some dramatic shift, so is the war over the status of gay relationships in the United States. Millennials see homosexual relationships as morally preferable to casual sexual ones. It seems hard to believe that, in a decade or two, they'll see this moment as part of an still-potent struggle, rather than as a footnote to a years-long change in the country's politics.