Less than a year after the GOP launched a major rebranding effort, which was followed months later by the Supreme Court issuing two landmark rulings in favor of gay marriage, the Republican Party remains stuck at a crossroads on marriage equality.
Though party leaders have indicated they want to move forward on the issue, some members are pulling the party back to a less tolerant time.
In the latest instance, Kansas' Republican-dominated House of Representatives this week passed a bill that would allow individuals, businesses, and other entities to refuse to serve gay couples if it would be "contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs." The bill explicitly extends protection to those who decline to provide for gay couples "any services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges; provide counseling, adoption, foster care, and other social services; or provide employment or employment benefits, related to, or related to the celebration of, any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union, or similar arrangement."
Critics have assailed it as an "anti-gay segregation" measure. Indeed, the bill — which is expected to pass the Senate and be signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback — would codify discrimination against an entire group of people.
Kansas already bans same-sex marriage, so the provision may seem unnecessary. But a handful of courts have recently struck down state-level bans, and the bill's backers fret that, in the absence of explicit legal protection, those who deny services to gay couples could get sued.
Last year, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that a photographer had violated an anti-discrimination statute by refusing to shoot a gay couple's wedding on the grounds that they were gay. The photographer, Elaine Huguenin, argued that she should not be compelled to put aside her religious beliefs, the same argument now being made by proponents of Kansas' legislation.
"Americans have constitutional rights," Brownback told The Topeka Capital-Journal, "among them the right to exercise their religious beliefs and the right for every human life to be treated with respect and dignity."
Similar measures, though with much longer odds of passing, have cropped up in Mississippi, Oklahoma, Ohio, South Dakota, and even Oregon.
Meanwhile, at the national level, some Republicans didn't get the "rebranding" memo either.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced a bill on Wednesday that would force the federal government to give deference to states on gay marriage; in January, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said judges striking down gay marriage bans "need some basic plumbing lessons"; Georgia's GOP chair said same-sex marriage wasn't "natural" because gays don't "have the equipment to have a sexual relationship"; and Virginia Rep. Randy Forbes (R) in December urged the House GOP's campaign operation to withhold funds from gay candidates.
Clearly, this sentiment, from one of the House's most outspoken Tea Partiers, is still prevalent in the party:
To be sure, the GOP has softened on the issue to a certain degree. Three GOP senators last year announced their support for same-sex marriage. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) publicly rebuked Forbes' request that the party financially cut off gay candidates. And in California, an openly gay GOP House candidate — who has received support from some leading GOPers — released an ad showing him and his partner at a gay pride parade.
Still, the dissonance between the two camps further underscores the GOP's broader ideological divide. And it calls attention to the vocal influence of its more regressive, unflattering corners, further hindering the party's attempt to broaden its appeal to younger voters, many of whom are gravitating en masse to the Democrats because of social issues like gay marriage.
Even Liz Cheney, whose father supported gay marriage way before it was cool, felt the need to come out against same-sex marriage during her short-lived Senate campaign, prompting a messy public spat with her lesbian sister.
So even when given the opportunity to advance causes dear to the gay community, elected Republicans have shied away. For instance, the Senate last year passed the historic Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) — which would ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation — but Boehner hasn't even brought it up for a vote in the House, calling the measure "unnecessary."
Embracing gay marriage is one thing. But if the GOP can't bring itself to extend discrimination protection to gays — and in one case is even encouraging such discrimination — then it will have problems connecting with younger voters for a long time to come.
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