Jonathan Capehart is a Post opinion writer.
Just because there’s been surprisingly little thunder against the gays of late doesn’t mean no one has been busy conjuring up the lightning that precedes it. And just because the Republican presidential candidates have so far been relatively quiet about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans on the campaign trail doesn’t mean they won’t turn up the volume if it suits them. Thanks to a collision of the primary calendar and actions coming to a head out in the states, it just might suit them.
In September, we had to endure a storm over the illegal antics of Kim Davis, the Rowan County, Ky., clerk who said that her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples was a matter of acting under “God’s authority” — the historic Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage be damned.
Then, in November, we witnessed the repudiation of an anti-discrimination law that protected LGBT people in Houston. Thanks to a campaign built on lies about transgender people in public bathrooms, a statute that covered 15 “protected characteristics” was repealed with more than 60 percent of the vote.
Since then, however, we have not seen the anti-gay-marriage backlash that many people expected would be fanned by GOP candidates fighting for the votes of evangelicals and hard-line conservatives. Does this signal widespread acceptance, at last, of the full rights of LGBT people? Or something more like the eye of the hurricane passing through?
Brace yourself. It looks like it’s going to be the latter.
With this new year will come renewed attempts to use the law to discriminate against LGBT Americans, largely by deploying Davis’s “God’s authority” defense. The uproar last spring over attempts to pass an expansive law in Indiana that would have allowed businesses to use religious belief as a justification for treating LGBT people as second-class citizens has in no way curtailed so-called religious freedom efforts in other parts of the country.
Case in point: Florida.
In the Sunshine State, the legislature is considering HB 401, or the “Protection of Religious Freedom” bill. This nasty measure would go well beyond what was proposed in Indiana. Yes, as is common with such efforts, it would apply to — and protect from litigation — religious institutions, businesses and private adoption agencies. But it would also cover any “health care facility,” “nursing home,” “ambulatory surgery center,” “assisted living facility” or “health care provider” — which would not be “required to administer, recommend, or deliver a medical treatment or procedure that would be contrary to the religious or moral convictions or policies of the facility or health care provider.”
How would this be morally permissible? Proponents can swaddle such legislation in principled language, but it is discrimination masquerading as religious conviction. Period.
Florida’s legislation could well turn into a fight to rival Indiana’s. Forces are lining up on both sides. Florida state Rep. Holly Raschein (R) has countered by sponsoring a business-backed anti-discrimination bill that’s also making its way through the legislature. “Broadly written religious exemption bills are solutions looking for problems, can have serious unintended consequences and will move Florida in the wrong direction,” she told me. “What we should be spending time on is ensuring that all hardworking people — including those who are gay or transgender — are treated fairly and equally.”
The issue may flare up in other places, as well. Religious refusal and anti-transgender laws have been or are being considered in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming.
“As troubling as this Florida bill is, this is just one way in which we are seeing religion being invoked to resist equal rights across the country,” Louise Melling, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Center for Liberty, told me in an email. “Religious freedom protects our right to our beliefs, but not to discriminate.”
Now, here’s what’s interesting. With the exception of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) bear-hugging Davis, the Republican presidential candidates so far haven’t said much about LGBT issues. But the states listed above represent 10 of the 13 contests in the March 1 Super Tuesday vote, and the 565 bound delegates at stake that day are the largest single-day share on the primary calendar. Two weeks later, Florida and evangelical-heavy Missouri and North Carolina each vote, after which more than half of the bound delegates for the GOP nomination will have been snapped up.
So, in the next few months, the candidates have a huge incentive to do whatever it takes to earn the votes of evangelicals and social conservatives. In a presidential election cycle where not being “politically correct” has been polling gold, don’t be surprised when the silence on LGBT issues ends.
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