Just a week ago, Mormon church leaders held a scam of a press conference in which they claimed to support anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people, whom they agreed had been discriminated against for centuries. This was at first a shocker, because only seven years ago they urged church members to promote that very discrimination. They implored them to help stop gay marriage in another state, California, raising millions of dollars and sending missionaries door to door in California, telling people to vote for hate and pass Prop 8. And the leaders weren't now offering an apology for that recent horrendous action.
As it turned out, their new brand of tolerance had one caveat: Though they would support an anti-discrimination law for LGBT people, they reserved the right to discriminate based on their religious beliefs. Claiming religious freedoms are under attack, they asked for exemptions to any law proposed in Utah that would protect LGBT people and in the same breath lashed out against forcing pharmacists to sell birth control if they have a moral opposition to it.
The entire press conference was a stunt, a way for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to be seen as being tolerant in a fast-changing world while not changing its position at all. And potential GOP presidential candidates have been doing the same thing as they struggle to feed the GOP base. In 2012, over 50 percent of GOP primary voters were evangelical Christians and despite the perennial reports of the religious right's demise, there's no reason to believe that will be much different in 2016.
What has changed is that much of the country has marriage equality and the Supreme Court will likely throw out all bans on same-sex marriage come June. Jeb Bush was the first to roll out the new rhetoric about how people should "respect the law" but that people should respect, "those of us who believe marriage is a sacrament and want to safeguard religious liberty." Louisiana GOP Governor Bobby Jindal, along with Texas Senator Ted Cruz, have stuck to the old script, simply calling for a federal marriage amendment, allowing states to ban same-sex marriage. This is a non-starter but at least they're being specific. Bush may have bought himself some time, but he's going to have to eventually explain what he means by safeguarding "religious liberty."
Mike Huckabee on Sunday spelled it out a bit more (though it's still quite unclear), outlining the parameters of how this debate may take place among GOP potential presidential contenders. Speaking on CNN, he compared homosexuality to drinking, swearing or liking "classical music and ballet and opera." As he explained it, these are all "lifestyles" and choices -- the long-time anti-gay lie on homosexuality -- and said that he has many friends who do or like those things, but they're not his "cup of tea." Protecting religious liberties thus means that Christians should not have to accept, or cater to, people whose choices are an affront to their faith.
And that's when Huckabee defined a bit more just what safeguarding religious liberties means -- and how Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and others will have to address it. Amid the stories of bakers and florists turning away gay customers seeking services for their weddings, and for-profit wedding chapels refusing to marry gays, Huckabee, though he wasn't very clear, seemed to be likening laws protecting gays in these businesses to forcing Jews to "serve bacon-wrapped shrimp in their deli."
If that is the case, it was ludicrous on every level, since bakers in states that protect gays against discrimination in public accommodations are not being told they must sell a specific product: They are being told they can't pick and choose to whom they sell it. The more apt comparison would be the Jewish deli that refuses to sell lox to non-Jews. That would be discrimination, and is against the law. Bakers are free to decide they don't want to sell wedding cakes at all, too, but in states that protect LGBT people, it's against the law to say we only sell these cakes to these people and not to gays.
That discrimination, however, is what religious right activists will be calling for presidential candidates to support under the guise of "religious liberty." They want conscience clauses so that town, county and city clerks can opt-out of marrying gays, as they want pharmacists to able to opt-out of birth control and florists to have the right to say no to a lesbian couple. Candidates can be vague, like Bush, or confusing and ridiculous, like Huckabee, for only so long. Soon enough they'll have to explain exactly what they mean.