Over the past few years, a slew of state legislation has emerged to reverse LGBT equality rulings. Professor of Politics and Government Julie Webber, who teaches a course on gay and lesbian politics and theory at Illinois State University, talks about the impetus behind many of these state initiatives—sometimes called “freedom of religion laws.” She also warns against relying on business interests to undermine or protest through withdrawal of investment and commerce, and sees the coming need for a federal ruling on the issue of states undermining LGBT rights.
The bills vary, but it is usually the ones claiming freedom of religion that are passed. We think a business owner argues he or she does not want to serve a gay person based on religion, and that is what starts the push toward legislation. But, when it comes to LGBT rights, the recent wave of state legislation being debated is generally referred to as “activist legislation,” and in this case it is activists from the right.
There is activist legislation on both sides of the aisle, but in this case it started with conservatives in Hawaii who initiated a backlash against gay marriage. They were activists from the far-reaching right who decided to combat this. And they touched off a firestorm.
They have a template to combat these laws. They start up petitions in different states. You’ll remember they tried it in Illinois a couple of years ago. That is what is fueling a lot of this state-level legislation.
It can also be called “panic legislation.” When the Supreme Court decided to override narrow and discriminatory state laws with Lawrence vs. Kansas in 2003, many, many states passed anti-gay marriage laws in response. We see it now with the passage of anti-transgender laws in bathrooms in places like Mississippi and North Carolina. LGBT blogger Paisley Currah talks about the “transgender panic” sending legislators to pass laws that have “migrated from the bedroom to the bathroom.”
A lot of the legislation has been based on these activists, and does not necessarily reflect widespread belief. Even in North Carolina, the governor has not necessarily made a career on anti-LGBT efforts, but is trying to appease his colleagues in the far right. Like many Republicans we see now, he is trapped by the far-right base.
What is interesting about the law in North Carolina is the issue of businesses threatening to leave the state. It goes beyond movie companies and Facebook, who generally support LGBT issues, and reaches to more conservative companies like Coca-Cola. Yet when people leave civil-right interests to corporate actions, they might lose their sense of what it means to work for civil rights. When you vote with the pocketbook, you are not thinking about the larger issue and the work that needs to be done on the political front.
We need to have policies written from the perspective of the poorest and most vulnerable. We cannot think of this only as a market with driven costs. That is a problem for democracy.
These laws will eventually be challenged. At some point people are going to figure out that gay people are religious, too. We’re a religious country. People define themselves by their religion. If you don’t have access to religion, in some ways it’s like being told you are not an American. And that is what laws like 2015’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana are saying. So this idea that religious freedom is somehow the antithesis of being transgender or gay is not going to fly for very long.
Webber can be reached via MediaRelations@IllinoisState.edu.