Are American conservatives miscalculating on gay rights?

It’s not 2002 anymore, Jeb Bush.
It’s not 2002 anymore, Jeb Bush.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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A reliable dog whistle for conservative politicians in the US—laws that use “religious freedom” to justify discrimination based on sexual orientation—may be starting to cost more than it once did. And Republican presidential candidates such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush and senator Marco Rubio might have missed the message.

A new law in Indiana aims to protect businesses if they choose not to serve gay and lesbian customers. Anyone could have predicted that it would come under fire from gay rights activists and Democratic politicians. But the national outrage has been much wider than that: As a further indication that society is changing, business leaders have been at the forefront of opposition to the law.

Consider: The CEO of SalesForce said his company will no longer travel to or host events in Indiana, and Apple’s Tim Cook penned an op-ed criticizing the law.

But more tellingly, Indiana’s business elite are also striking back against the plan. The CEO of Angie’s List cancelled a planned $40 million headquarters expansion in the wake of the controversy—and he was the campaign manager for Indiana’s previous Republican governor. Nine other Indiana CEOs signed a letter to the state legislature opposing the law, which has also been criticized by the state’s chamber of commerce.

Indiana governor Mike Pence finds himself on the defensive. He has framed the statute as a protection of religious freedom, but critics say that the First Amendment to the US Constitution should suffice. GLAAD, the LGBT rights organization, points out that three people standing with Pence when he signed the bill have made offensive comments about gay people or pushed an anti-gay agenda.

Bush and Rubio, both expected to be on the ballot when Republicans nominate their presidential candidate next year, have supported Pence and the law. Bush—who hasn’t run for office since 2002—called it “the right thing to do,” and noted that President Bill Clinton signed a similar law during his presidency. (He didn’t mention that the former president has since repudiated it.) As the likely candidate of the Republican establishment, Bush will face questions about how conservative he is, and backing Pence may seem a simple way to answer them.

But perhaps it’s not so simple: The establishment candidate will also need the backing of business, and even Republican corporate leaders seem to think this law is bad for their interests. Young Republicans, meanwhile—the future of the party—largely support same-sex marriage.

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, another leading presidential contender from a state split between voters from both parties, took a more cautious approach: He declined to specifically endorse the law, simply saying he believes in religious freedom.