NEW YORK -- After joyous tears outside the Supreme Court and triumphant flags at Pride events across the US, one might assume the gay marriage debate is over - equality has won, bigotry has been banished.
Not a chance. This is, after all, a country in which 42% of the population think God created humans 10,000 years ago, and a nation in which Donald Trump can lead the Republican field for President.
The Republican Party, which has come to increasingly rely on the support of Christian evangelicals, is planning to push back on the Supreme Court ruling by passing legislation that gives protections to organisations and individuals opposed to same-sex marriage on religious grounds.
The Republican Study Committee has been industrious drafting a bill, which is gathering support. “All religious Americans deserve assurance that they can carry out their conscience without a federal government crackdown,” said Texas Republican Bill Flores, who chairs the committee.
The problem for Republicans, as with the issue of the Confederate flag, is striking a balance between pandering to the conservative views of social conservatives, while not alienating the more liberal views of the national majority. Removal of the Confederate flag was an overwhelmingly supported move; likewise the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. But not with the Republican base.
In March, Republican Governor Mike Pence moved to appease the social conservatives in his state of Indiana by signing legislation that allowed businesses to refuse service to gay couples. Local and national protests were swift, leading to Pence hurriedly signing an amendment banning discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. A move by Republicans to legalise “religious freedom” objections would certainly face a similar if not sterner redress by businesses and LGBT groups.
As Pennsylvania Republican Representative Charlie Dent pointed out on Friday, “I would really hate to see the Indiana nightmare turn into a national debacle.”
Republicans argue that without a congressional response to the Supreme Court decision, religious charities could lose their tax-exempt status should they oppose same-sex marriage. Likewise religious schools could be stripped of government grants over their social views.
Human rights campaigners respond by noting these groups have the right to believe what they wish, but the government should not subsidise their views. As Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, pointed out, “The right to believe is fundamental. The right to use taxpayer dollars to discriminate is not.”
Although a majority supported legalising gay marriage, a recent poll found Americans more split on whether local officials with religious objections should be required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. An Associated Press-GfK poll revealed 47 percent said they should be forced to issue licenses, however 49 percent say they should be exempt.