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Opinion Why the religious right is so freaked out by the Supreme Court’s LGBTQ ruling

Demonstrators outside the Supreme Court in October 2019. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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When the Supreme Court ruled Monday that the Civil Rights Act protects gay and transgender Americans from discrimination in employment, social conservatives were predictably outraged.

They called it “a grave threat to religious liberty.” They said that white evangelicals, having now been betrayed by Justices John G. Roberts Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch (who voted with the court’s liberals in the case), would not bother going to the polls to support President Trump. They said that “Roberts no longer pretends to be a judge; now Gorsuch has left his robe behind as well.”

Their shock is probably sincere; with five extremely conservative justices making up the court’s majority, any opinion that contradicts the right’s perspective on anything is a surprise. But this is a reminder that as central as reactionary social conservatism — especially its obsession with its version of sexual “morality” — is to the broader Republican project, there are limits to how far elite conservatives will go to defend it.

Even though the Trump administration took the pro-discrimination position in this case, and even though you’ll have a hard time finding any conservatives defending the decision, I suspect that in many quarters on the right, particularly in Washington, there isn’t all that much concern. Just as they accommodated themselves fairly quickly to marriage equality, your average big-business conservative won’t look at this decision and feel that their world is falling down around them.

They also know — as do the social conservatives — that it’s the economic conservatives who drive the Republican train. The social conservatives may get most of what they want most of the time when Republicans are in power, but the interests of capital will always be taken care of first and last, with tax cuts and deregulation and anything else their hearts desire.

What does the Supreme Court ruling on protections for LGBTQ workers mean to you? Tell The Post.

So when conservative writer Varad Mehta proclaims Monday’s decision is “the end of the Federalist Society judicial project. Gorsuch was grown in the Federalist Society lab and did this,” adding that the whole point of the Federalist Society and the whole point of electing Trump was “to deliver Supreme Court victories to social conservatives,” he’s only partly right.

Gorsuch was indeed “grown in a Federalist Society lab” — the Federalist Society was created to nurture a steady supply of conservative judges who could be pre-vetted and delivered to a Republican administration for quick appointment. But who do you think is lavishly funding the Federalist Society to make sure their interests are taken care of? It’s not social conservatives. It’s corporations.

Gorsuch himself is a product of the conservative elite: Georgetown Prep, Columbia, Harvard Law, Supreme Court clerkship, white-shoe law firm, Bush II Justice Department, some time on the Court of Appeals, then up to the high court at age 49, a trajectory almost identical to that of Roberts and Brett M. Kavanaugh. He may want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, but he’s probably more interested in dismantling the administrative state.

Now that this decision has been rendered, social conservatives are raising alarms that churches and religious organizations will no longer be allowed to discriminate. But they shouldn’t worry. A long line of Supreme Court decisions have exempted churches and religious organizations from all kinds of laws preventing discrimination. In the 2014 Hobby Lobby case, the court even extended special privileges to private corporations who say they want to ignore the law (in that case, the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employer-provided insurance include contraception coverage) because of the owners’ particular interpretation of their religion.

There will be cases in the near future that will more clearly define the limits of Monday’s ruling on the Civil Rights Act, but no one seriously thinks that this conservative court won’t carve out expansive exceptions that allow all kinds of groups to keep firing people because they’re gay or transgender.

So what has the religious right so dismayed isn’t the idea that now they themselves might have to tolerate a gay person in their midst. It’s that distaste for their animus toward gay and transgender people has become so widespread that even two conservative justices, who have been their allies in so many other cases turned against them.

I was particularly taken with a tweet from Carrie Severino, president of the right-wing Judicial Crisis Network, which accused Gorsuch of deciding as he did “for the sake of appealing to college campuses and editorial boards.” That’s a laughable claim, but it shows the locus of her concern: the elite cultural institutions where the views of her side are rejected.

Severino’s husband, Roger, whom the Human Rights Campaign calls a “radical anti-LGBTQ activist,” heads the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services. He is one of a cadre of social conservatives working in the administration to advance a social conservative agenda on sexuality and other matters; just last week, the administration eliminated protections against discrimination in health care for transgender Americans, a move that could be undone by the Supreme Court’s ruling.

That shows the complexity of the situation: Social conservatives have been given almost everything they want from this administration, even as they are losing the culture war and their values become more and more repellent to most Americans. Given how unpopular those values have become, they still wield an extraordinary degree of power. But even they know it can’t last.

Enjoy Pride, but don't support corporations feeding an unjust system that hurts vulnerable LGBTQ communities, says activist Evan Greer in this video op-ed. (Video: The Washington Post)

Read more:

Joshua Matz and Robbie Kaplan: The Supreme Court’s ruling on LGBTQ protections is a triumph for textualism — and dignity

Paul Waldman: Supreme Court bends to reality on LGBTQ rights

The Post’s View: The Supreme Court’s ruling on LGBTQ rights is a sweeping victory for fairness

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