There have been predictions for several years that gay-bashing by GOP presidential candidates would be dead by 2016, some of it wishful thinking by gay advocates. Back in 2012, Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign, for example, commenting on the lack of discussion of gay issues in the three debates between President Obama and Mitt Romney, said, "What we're seeing is proof positive that gay issues aren't the wedge they used to be." The public, he said, has "moved on."
Fast forward to 2015: Ted Cruz, Scott Walker and Rick Perry have expressed blatant anti-gay positions, from banning gay scout leaders to supporting yet another marriage amendment. Some pundits believe this to be politically dangerous, certainly in a general election, and they're right when it comes to the more overt bigotry. As I noted last week, Scott Walker clearly crossed a line -- and walked back -- when he said the Boy Scouts' ban on gay adults "protected children."
But new polling underscores that covert messaging -- the dog whistle -- could do the trick for the GOP, just as it has worked for the party on race and gender for decades now. Jeb Bush has defended "religious liberty" -- the new code words for anti-gay positions -- even while saying gay couples deserved "respect" for their relationships. And just last week, Bush said he supported the idea of anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBT people, though he thought they should be handled "state-by-state" (contrary to a comprehensive federal bill introduced by Democrats in Congress today that would protect LGBT people nationally).
But in comments that directly followed, Bush said that he believes there should be an exception for people with religious objections to allowing gays and lesbians to marry, such as a florist who refused to sell flowers to a gay couple for their wedding. In other words, those who would discriminate in the first place should be exempt from laws banning discrimination. This will in fact be the more subtle -- but no less vile and discriminatory -- gay-bashing of the 2016 election.
Right on schedule, GOP legislators in Congress introduced -- and last week publicly promoted -- the deceptively-named First Amendment Defense Act, a bill which appears to be designed to do what the George W. Bush-backed Federal Marriage Amendment was meant to do in 2004 and the year preceding it: Fire up the anti-LGBT evangelical base and create excitement among them for candidates backing it.
The First Amendment Defense Act, as written, would do exactly what Jeb Bush believes -- and much more. Introduced by Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), it states that government "shall not take any discriminatory action against a person, wholly or partially on the basis that such person believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage."
The ACLU describes it as "Indiana on steroids," referring to the initial, notorious Indiana Religious Restoration Freedom Act. Could a bill like this really gain traction in a post-Obergefell world? While we've seen breathless poll after breathless poll proclaiming majority support for marriage equality and anti-discrimination laws, this week the Associated Press released a poll that worded the questions a bit differently. And we had better pay attention, because this is how backlash to equality operates.
First off, the poll saw no surge in support for marriage equality after the Supreme Court's historic ruling, and, the AP reported, "[i]f anything, support was down slightly since April." Secondly, when people were given more than two choices, and given the option to say they "neither approve nor disapprove" of the court's ruling, 18 percent chose this category. Thus, only 39 percent approved while those who disapproved of the ruling is at 41 percent. Likely, much of the 18 percent would have said they approved if given just two choices, and this may be why in most other polls we see majority support for marriage equality. But it is clearly a lot of soft approval. In fact, while only 30 percent in the poll chose "strongly approve" (over "somewhat approve"), 35 percent chose "strongly disapprove," showing passion is higher among those opposed to marriage equality.
Still, it's true that a large portion of the country supports marriage equality and public opinion has moved quickly in a positive direction on that issue. But as the AP reported, the poll found that when religious objections are thrown into the mix, the public has a jarring reaction, and one that LGBT activists should be taking heed of rather than simply trumpeting new and breathless polls claiming more support:
When the two are in conflict, 56 percent of those questioned said it's more important for the government to protect religious liberties, while 39 percent said it's more important to protect the rights of gays and lesbians.
People were split over whether officials who issue marriage licenses should be allowed to say no to gay and lesbian couples because of religious objections. Just under half said those officials should not have to issue the licenses, about the same proportion saying they should.
Also, 59 percent think wedding-related businesses should be allowed to refuse service to same-sex couples, compared with 52 percent in the earlier poll. By comparison, 46 percent said businesses in general should be allowed to refuse service because of their religious principles, while 51 percent said that should not be allowed.
So, in the AP poll we're actually now seeing nearly 60 percent of Americans agreeing with Jeb Bush's position, and this is up sharply since the Supreme Court ruling, from just over half. There's a sharp difference between Republicans and Democrats, too. Among Republicans, 82 percent said it was more important to protect "religious liberties" than gay rights -- which is why this is an issue GOP candidates will feel compelled to push big time -- while 64 percent of Democrats saw gay rights as more important to protect. But with 32 percent of even Democrats viewing "religious liberties" as more important, it's certainly something to be concerned about.
While it may be accurate to say that a majority of the American public has "moved on" with regard to marriage equality, that's not true among the base of the GOP. And, more critically, the majority of Americans in general hasn't "moved on" when it comes to "religious liberty" vs. "gay rights," not by a long shot. I've pointed out over and over, both in pieces covering conservative conferences over the last few years and in my recent book, that anti-gay bigots have been re-crafting their messaging. They've been searching for a new wedge, looking for what one anti-gay strategist described to me as the gay version of "partial birth abortion," as they study LGBT rights in a post-Obergefell world in the way they studied women's rights in a post-Roe world.
The First Amendment Defense Act is quickly gaining co-sponsors: 136 in the House (including one Democrat, Rep. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois) and 36 in the Senate. Mitch McConnell, responding to a question from the Washington Blade on whether or not it would get a vote, certainly didn't rule it out. "I think at some point this year we'll obviously take a look at that," he replied. It's unlikely this bill could get 60 votes in the Senate, nor would it likely be signed by President Obama. But the Federal Marriage Amendment had even worse odds. The real goal wasn't to get it passed, but to engage anti-gay voters in the presidential and congressional races.
That may or may not be enough to garner GOP wins in 2016, but it will surely have the effect of injecting bigotry into the 2016 political discourse -- which is already happening -- and legitimizing religious hatred and discrimination. And that's always a loss for the average gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person, still not legally protected in the majority of America and subjected to derision, discrimination and violence every day.
Michelangelo Signorile's new book, It's Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.