Last week, I highlighted major events in the national reception of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Governor Mike Pence, who the media quickly labeled as the go-to authority for all matters RFRA, navigated a course in public relations through extremely choppy and often hostile waters. With no major public appearances or press conferences since Pence asked the Indiana
legislature to pass a “fix” for the law, it seems that the Governor and his team realized that ducking out of the spotlight that they were involuntarily placed under was probably the best course of action. Governor Pence won’t be remembered for his expert handling of this controversy, but in the end, he made it clear that he doesn’t support discrimination.
Before Pence could even begin to dial back his presence in the media, an immense chorus of voices from the right and left threw themselves into the conversation. Of course, the major GOP candidates and probable candidates for the 2016 presidential race had something to say. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio ran to Indiana’s defense, both stressing the importance of religious freedom for individuals, but also insisting that the law was not discriminatory. Ted Cruz also came out in defense of the law, telling an audience on the campaign trail that “We need to stand up as courageous conservatives,” and suggesting that “Religious liberty is not some fringe view.”
Former Republican California governor and beloved silver screen cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger took a markedly different approach, blasting the law for being divisive. Calling it “bad for Republicans,” the Governator claimed it risks alienating even more young voters. In concurrence with Schwarzenegger, Roger Simon of Politico criticized Republicans for allowing the religious right to again slip what he calls a “poison pill” into the mouths of 2016 candidates, drawing them into unwinnable culture wars.
Which message has prevailed as this chapter in the debate draws to a close? A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted between April 6 and 8 found that 54 percent of respondents thought it was wrong for businesses to deny services based on their religious beliefs, versus the 28 percent who said they should have that right. It’s well known that national support for same sex marriage is at an all-time high (59 percent last year), and even higher among millennials. As I’ve noted, Indiana made changes to its law to address LGBT discrimination. Arkansas followed suit, and Georgia put its version away for the time being.
Yet, the issue remains far from cut and dry. While the Reuters/Ipsos poll found opposition to generally denying service to customers based on a proprietor’s religious beliefs, a recent AP-GfK poll found a majority of respondents do actually support wedding-related business denying service for that reason. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is ready to throw his support behind his state’s latest religious freedom bill, a measure soon to be introduced that will more specifically address religious belief and same-sex marriage. And then there’s Memories Pizza, the Walkerton, Indiana pizza joint that went viral after one of its employees said that she would refuse to cater a same-sex wedding under the new state law. Initially, the business received an ugly online tar and feathering that the Internet is so expert at facilitating, and decided to shut down from the bad press and multitude of threats. Yet, immediately after, a conservative talk radio host started a crowdfunding campaign for the embattled business that raised over 800 thousand dollars in a matter of days, making it the second most successful effort of all time on GoFundMe.
After an avalanche of press and attention on this issue, it remains no closer to any conclusion. If anything should be drawn from these past few weeks, it should be that the issue is murky and impossible to simply wade through. Governor Mike Pence’s unsure and somewhat contradictory approach represented a swing and a miss. Others would do well to learn from his mistakes. If public figures on the campaign trail or in state houses feel like this issue is worth addressing, they should at least have a plan for the media.