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In Religious Freedom Debate, a Retreat by Key Republicans

The debate over religious freedom laws this week illustrated the growing momentum of gay rights.
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/ Source: NBC News

The debate over religious freedom laws this week illustrated the growing momentum of gay rights, with some key Republican politicians forced to adjust their policy stances and public comments as they worried about being cast as intolerant.

On Thursday night, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a revised version of the religious freedom provision which touched off a national controversy that both embarrassed some in his state and may have ended his chances of becoming president. Pence backed the new provision, which includes special language that says religious freedom should be not used as a way to discriminate based on race, sexual orientation or gender, only five days after he strongly had defended the original law and said he would be unwilling to change it.

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But Pence was not the only Republican who had to reverse himself within a few days. Legislators in Arkansas revised a similar provision in their state amid protests, and they made changes that will make it harder for private individuals or businesses to cite religious freedom as a way to avoid providing services as part of same-sex weddings.

Former Florida governor and leading 2016 candidate Jeb Bush, who on Monday had praised Pence and strongly defended the law, two days later adjusted his position and suggested that Indiana should have followed the model of Utah’s religious freedom provision, which had included protections in its original version for people who are gay.

Meanwhile, another Republican, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, said he would not sign a religious freedom provision that is being considered in the Michigan state legislature.

The shifts by top Republicans irritated religious conservatives, who are very comfortable asserting the view that businesses should be allowed, based on the religious beliefs of their owners, not to take actions that could be considered as condoning gay marriage.

“We have watched a sad spectacle this week as one Republican elected leader after another retreated on the rights of people of faith to have space to express their religious beliefs and defend their conscience,” said Tim Head, executive director of Faith & Freedom Coalition, a national conservative group. “When criticized on the simple issue of the First Amendment right to exercise one’s religion, they folded like a cheap suit.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a 2016 presidential candidate, also defended those opposed to same-sex marriage.

“Here in America, we shouldn't force those with sincerely held religious beliefs to participate in ceremonies they don’t want to. That’s the real discrimination,” Jindal said in an interview with a Des Moines radio station that his aides distributed to reporters.

“This isn't hypothetical,” he added. “This isn't made up. We’re talking about florists, we’re talking about bakers, we’re talking about photographers that have had to choose between closing their businesses, paying huge fines or violating their sincerely-held religious beliefs, and I think this is a grave, grave concern.”

What happened this week was both a public display of change that has already happened in politics and likely a preview of what is to come. Many Republican elected officials are increasingly uncomfortable joining social conservative activists who are wary of gay rights.

GOP politicians view the eventual legalization of gay marriage nationally as inevitable, and many rarely speak about the issue publicly.

The push to ban gay marriage nationally, a galvanizing issue for Republicans a decade ago, has ended. In fact, Mike Murphy, one of Bush’s top political advisers, two years ago backed a successful effort to end California’s gay marriage ban.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to strike down all remaining gay marriage bans this summer. Most of the Republicans currently in office and the 2016 presidential contenders have in the past said marriage is only between a man and a woman. But it remains to be seen if they will continue to hold that view if same-sex marriages are allowed in all 50 states and supported by the majority of Americans.