At the federal level, the fight for gay rights is practically nonexistent. But at the state level, the cultural and legislative battle is raging.
The latest salvo to be fired comes in California, where the Sacramento Bee's Jon Ortiz reports that a lawmaker proposed a bill that would prohibit state employees from using government funds to travel to states that have laws that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocates say sanctions discrimination against them. It comes days after South Dakota's Republican governor vetoed a bill that would have restricted transgender students' access to public schools and locker rooms.
California is the first state to revisit instituting such a travel ban based on a state's LGBT laws in the wake of outrage last year about Indiana's religious freedom bill. At the time, several state legislatures considered it, and Democratic governors in Connecticut, New York and Washington state, and mayors in Oakland, Calif., Seattle and San Francisco temporarily instituted government-funded travel bans to states such as Indiana. Most of those — including all the state bans — were lifted weeks later, after Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed a revision to the law specifically banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The California proposal would take things a step further by making such a travel ban permanent. California Assemblyman Evan Low (D) proposed the bill as part of a package of LGBT-related bills, including one that would cut off state aid to public colleges and universities with similar religious freedom regulations. "No one wants to send employees into an environment where they would be uncomfortable," Low told Ortiz.
It's unclear how much support the proposal will have in the Democratic-controlled legislature; Ortiz reports the bill will get a hearing in April and has the backing of the LGBT group Equality California. But if it gains any traction whatsoever, it will likely fuel the inter-state gay rights battle.
For example, look at the thorny questions that arise just from debating the ban: How would a state measure another state's anti-gay levels? California's bill would likely include all 21 states that have some kind of religious freedom laws (according to a National Conference of State Legislatures count), but would it include states with long-dormant religious freedom or exemption laws, for example? Would states that champion religious freedom counter with their own ban? Does it punish so-called LGBT friendly cities in the states that are banned?
Supporters of the travel ban might counter that at least this puts them on the offensive in a year when LGBT activists have been put on the defensive. They are playing whack-a-mole to try to block bills in state legislatures that, they say, would roll back many of their rights won at the federal and judicial levels.
The Human Rights Campaign, the leading LGBT rights lobbying group, is tracking some 150 bills it classifies as "unfriendly" to LGBT people. In the entire 2015 legislative session, it tracked 110. And despite the near-miss for LGBT advocates in South Dakota, about a dozen states are considering so-called "bathroom bills."
It remains to be seen what happens to this California proposal. But the fact that it's been floated in one most influential state legislatures in the nation suggests the battle over religious freedom bills — and more broadly, how to balance LGBT rights after the summer's Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage — is far from over.