Now that it's becoming a national story, all the Republican candidates are going to have to take a position on the new Indiana law that for all intents and purposes legalizes discrimination against gay people. (If you're in the market for a lengthy explanation of what the law does and doesn't do and what the implications are, I wrote one yesterday.) And they all look to be coming down in the same place—one that's fundamentally dishonest about the law and its implications. They're essentially trying to have it both ways, supporting the establishment of a right of discrimination for religious business owners, but claiming that they are supporting no such thing. Here's Jeb Bush talking to Hugh Hewitt yesterday:
Bush: I think if you, if they actually got briefed on the law that they wouldn't be blasting this law. I think Governor Pence has done the right thing. Florida has a law like this. Bill Clinton signed a law like this at the federal level. This is simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs, to have, to be able to be people of conscience. I just think once the facts are established, people aren't going to see this as discriminatory at all.
Hewitt: You know, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was signed in 1993. It's been the law in the District of Columbia for 22 years. I do not know of a single incidence of the sort that Tim Cook was warning about occurring in the District in the last 22 years.
Bush: But there are incidents of people who, for example, the florist in Washington State who had a business that based on her conscience, she couldn't be participating in a gay wedding, organizing it, even though the person, one of the people was a friend of hers. And she was taken to court, and is still in court, or the photographer in New Mexico. There are many cases where people acting on their conscience have been castigated by the government. And this law simply says the government has to have a level of burden to be able to establish that there's been some kind of discrimination. We're going to need this. This is really an important value for our country to, in a diverse country, where you can respect and be tolerant of people's lifestyles, but allow for people of faith to be able to exercise theirs.
Just to be clear, the Indiana law is not like the federal RFRA, in both the context in which it was passed and its particular provision. The Indiana law specifically applies to disputes between individuals, whereas the federal law discusses only personal conduct the government is trying to regulate. (The federal law came about because of a case where two Native Americans were denied unemployment benefits because they had used peyote in a religious ceremony.) But in any case, Republicans like Jeb are trying to pretend that we can satisfy everyone, and that the Indiana law does so. But we can't, and it doesn't. We have to make a choice.
What Bush is doing here (and what Indiana Governor Mike Pence and the rest of the Republicans defending this law are doing as well) is a misleading little two-step. Their argument is: 1) We must allow religious people to discriminate; and 2) This has nothing to do with discrimination. But both those things can't simultaneously be true. You can call it "simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs" or "people acting on their conscience," but the whole issue is that the act of conscience that they want to undertake is also an act of discrimination. That's because the particular acts of conscience we're talking about are those that are not in the realm of speech or worship but in the realm of commerce, and they involve another person.
The cases in question are essentially zero-sum conflicts of claimed rights. Janet wants to have an anniversary dinner in a restaurant; Mike, the restaurant owner, doesn't want to serve gay couples. There are only two possible outcomes: Janet and her partner get served, in which case Mike has to give; or Mike gets to refuse that service, in which case Janet has to give. You can dress up Mike's motivations any way you want—"sincere religious beliefs," "act of conscience," whatever—but that doesn't change the fact that one person is going to win and the other is going to lose.
The liberals who object to the Indiana law are making their choice clear: Janet's right to be treated equally trumps Mike's desire to discriminate, even though that desire is based on religious beliefs. The conservatives who support the law are taking the opposite position: If it's based on a religious belief, Mike's right to discriminate trumps Janet's right to be treated equally. I happen to disagree with the conservative position, but I would respect it a lot more if they'd just come out and admit what their position really is. Instead, they're trying to claim that there's no conflict between Janet and Mike and they aren't taking a side.
But they are. These kinds of conflicts are the whole point of this law, the reason why Republicans wanted to pass it and would like to see others like it. Of course, nobody wants to say they support "discrimination." But if that florist in Washington or that photographer in New Mexico whom Bush is defending have a policy that says, "We will accept the business of straight couples but not gay couples," then they're discriminating. Republicans want to make sure that business owners have a legal right to discriminate against potential customers in that fashion. They ought to just admit it.