WASHINGTON – The only purpose of the “religious freedom” laws in Indiana and other states is to assert that discrimination against gay people is acceptable. The only way to “fix” such measures is to repeal them.
As events this week have shown, the nation is becoming intolerant of intolerance. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence insisted that the absurdly titled “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” was not meant to enable discrimination. But no sooner had the ink dried on the new law than a local pizzeria announced it was just raring to discriminate.
“If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no,” said Crystal O'Connor, whose family owns and operates Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Ind.
As a practical matter, I’m betting that few couples, gay or straight, would be devastated to go without pizza at their wedding reception. But that’s not the point. O'Connor correctly understood that the law was intended to let her discriminate against gay couples. Her family’s Christian beliefs, she said, lead her to disapprove of same-sex marriage.
It is her right to believe whatever she wants. Religious liberty is guaranteed by the Constitution. But in a pluralistic society, freedom of worship cannot mean a business that serves the general public can discriminate. When I was growing up in the South, there were business owners who believed the Lord didn’t intend for different races to mix, much less marry. Federal civil rights legislation barred these businesses from acting on that belief. The proprietors got over it.
At Pence’s urging, the Indiana Legislature quickly came up with a proposal to amend the law to prohibit discrimination based on “race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or United States military service.” In other words: Never mind the whole thing, and we’re sorry we bothered everyone.
Read that list and contemplate the supreme irony: Indiana may soon end up with an anti-discrimination law protecting the LGBT community that is among the toughest in the nation. Apparently, there will be pizza for everyone.
Doubtless with an eye toward Pence’s travails, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that he will not sign the “religious freedom” law his Legislature just handed him without significant changes, probably along the lines of those being considered in Indiana.
Pence was a big supporter of the original law, so why the rapid moonwalk in the opposite direction? Because the business community, both locally and nationally, announced its opposition and activists began talking about a boycott of the state. Because the NCAA, which is holding the Final Four tournament in Indianapolis, announced its urgent concern. Because Apple CEO Tim Cook, who heads the most valuable company in the universe, wrote a Washington Post op-ed denouncing the Indiana law as discriminatory.
In Arkansas, Hutchinson heard expressions of concern from Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer – which happens to be headquartered in Bentonville, Ark. When Wal-Mart calls, and you’re governor of Arkansas, you pick up the phone.
About 20 states already have these “religious freedom” laws on the books, although most are not as far-reaching as Indiana’s. There is no indication that rampant discrimination is taking place – but that’s not the point. The clear target is same-sex marriage, and the intention is to reassure citizens that discrimination against same-sex couples is at least theoretically permissible.
The fact that we don’t hear of these laws actually being used proves a truth about same-sex marriage that should be blindingly obvious: Whether two men or two women decide to marry has not the slightest impact on anyone else.
Just a decade ago, most gay activists considered same-sex marriage a bridge too far. Today, it’s the law in 37 states. The world has not come to an end. “Traditional” marriage has not been threatened. Opponents cannot cite one negative impact on society, unless you count the deprivation felt by citizens who need somebody, anybody, to discriminate against.
With a few exceptions, such as Hobby Lobby, the business community has decided that bigotry is bad for the bottom line. Politicians can fight the likes of Apple, Wal-Mart and the NCAA if they want. It’s just not a high-percentage move.
Which brings me to the wrenching struggle the Republican Party is having with itself over the issue. It’s time for the GOP to get on the right side of history. The next time you order an extra-large pepperoni, tell them to hold the hate.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.