It did not seem to matter that the GOP-backed bill thus far offers no protections for the religious freedom of individuals, LGBT rights supporters immediately assailed the religious protections in the bill. Meanwhile conservatives, especially those in the evangelical community, attacked the bill as opening the door to discrimination against them due to their religious beliefs. For the first time, for example, the Christian owners of a restaurant in Indiana could be obligated by state law to set aside their religious faith to cater a same sex wedding if the bill passes.
|Sen. Travis Holdman|
Evangelicals, already furious with Governor Pence and Republican legislators over the "fix" to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, are on the verge of full scale revolt against the party going into the 2016 elections. This comes on the heels of the Tea Party wing of the party also being angry at Pence for abdicating a number of conservative positions while in office. The real danger to Pence's re-election is not people voting against him for RFRA; rather it is his former Tea Party and Evangelical supporters staying home on Election Day. Without their enthusiastic backing, it is doubtful Gov. Pence can be re-elected.
Key Republicans in the Indiana General Assembly have somehow managed to convince themselves that standing up for religious freedom is bad politics. Of course, GOP presidential candidates, who have to be more attuned to the public's views than anyone, have reached the exact opposite conclusion. None of those candidates support the position taken by Indiana GOP legislative leaders. Although Governor Pence has not yet taken a position on the bill, it certainly would not have been introduced and supported by Republican legislative leadership without his assent. Nonetheless, Pence will probably hold off until after the filing deadline for Governor to enunciate his position. Given the current alienation of Evangelical and Tea Party Republicans, Gov. Pence should be very concerned with a Mourdock-like primary challenge from his right flank.
Previously I've argued that Indiana Republicans need to stop playing defense and aggressively support religious freedom, framing the issue exactly in those terms. Instead they've sat back and allowed the LGBT community to define the debate as one simply about civil rights and fairness. While the attack on RFRA bill by all credible accounts was an unexpected ambush, the surprise factor has long passed and Republican leaders have had a chance to regroup and rethink their disastrous approach to framing the issue. However, instead of a new aggressive approach focusing on religious liberty, Republican legislative leadership has decided to take the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain approach of appeasement. They believe that the LGBT community, having scored a major PR battle in 2015, will be satisfied with this compromise civil rights legislation instead of going for yet another victory. That's naïve thinking. Very naïve. The LGBT community has no reason to compromise when GOP legislative leadership begins the negotiations by waving the white flag.
Fortunately for the Governor and GOP legislative leaders there is a way out of the political quagmire. Put the issue up for a referendum. While historically Indiana's legislature has strongly opposed referenda and other forms of direct democracy, the law does allow the legislature to authorize a referendum.
It is unlikely that, with evangelicals and other conservatives mobilized by a state-wide referendum on the expansion of civil rights protections, that the measure would pass in conservative Indiana. After all, such a measure failed in liberal Houston even though the LGBT rights measure had the full support of the lesbian Democrat Mayor of that city, key government officials and big business. A referendum would allow Republican legislative leaders and Governor Pence to escape political consequences, both the phantom concern of a backlash from the LGBT-rights supporting public if they don't support the expansion and the real backlash they face from conservatives if they do.
A referendum would have another effect. It would drive conservatives to the polls in November. That increased turnout could be the catalyst needed to help re-elect Governor Pence and to keep the GOP legislative supermajorities from being significantly weakened.
Since authorizing a referendum makes sense, I doubt our legislature will do it.