LGBT rights have faced ongoing attack this week, as bills passed in both North Carolina and Indiana that limited discriminatory protections against marginalized groups.
North Carolina and Indiana’s governors both signed into law bills effectively opening the door for sexual discrimination. In North Carolina, House Bill 2 restricted washroom use by transgender people by legislating they must use facilities corresponding to the stated gender on their birth certificates, in response to Charlotte’s expansion of its non-discrimination ordinance to protect transgender rights in late February. It also rolled back protections against employment discrimination.
In Indiana, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act allowed companies to cite religious beliefs as a defense in lawsuits alleging discrimination. The bill’s opponents claimed its phrasing would open the door to widespread discrimination, especially in light of the religious beliefs defense used by some bakers to deny same-sex couples service. The law, which Indiana Governor Mike Pence counted as a major achievement, was signed in a closed ceremony in the state capitol and was portrayed as a reaction to Indianans’ feelings that their religious freedoms were being infringed upon by things like marriage equality.
Republican-held legislatures’ anti-LGBT efforts are the first sustained conservative response to last year’s Supreme Court ruling, which effectively legalized gay marriage across the country. “As the leftist agenda pushers charge ‘forward’ and courts rule against the will of citizens and states’ rights,” Breitbart told its readers, “Constitutional conservatives are mounting up with plans to defend the rights and power granted them under the United States Constitution.”
Key to the post-ruling battle was framing the debate as a states’ rights issue. “States’ rights on marriage is effectively dead, and along with it, much of what was once marriage in America,” wrote John-Henry Westen for The Daily Caller shortly after the verdict. Before dropping out of the Republican presidential race, Marco Rubio echoed similar arguments in an interview with Chuck Todd last December. “If you want to change the definition of marriage, then you need to go to state legislatures and get them to change it, because states have always defined marriage,” he said.
Social conservatives are at an advantage on the state level: the party holds 31 governorships across the country and 68 of 98 state legislatures. In 23 states, Republicans control the governor’s mansion and both legislative chambers. Democrats have similar “trifectas” in just seven states.
That power differential has made it easier for a host of conservative legislation to pass on a state level. Gender, sexuality, and abortion protections have long been (and still remain) under threat from Republican controlled legislatures, including most recently in one of the most restrictive abortion laws in history, in Indiana.
Opponents of North Carolina’s new law have staged protests outside the state capitol, and corporations including Apple, Google, Dow Chemical, the NBA and others have announced their opposition as well. The ACLU, meanwhile, announced today that it was suing the state for the unconstitutional restrictions put in place by HB-2.
Laws that restrict LGBT rights are often incubated by conservative Christian groups like the Christian Action League and the North Carolina Values Coalition. The #keepNCsafe campaign, an invention of the NCVC, rallied support in favor of passing of HB-2, and both organizations sent representatives to speak before senate committees.
The state-level civil rights grab is a long conservative tradition, but not all recent efforts have been successful. The turnaround of Georgia’s governor Nathan Deal, who promised to veto a similar bill awaiting his signature, was largely the result of corporate pressure. Without boycott threats that would have deprived Georgia of billions of dollars, Deal likely wouldn’t have vetoed a bill that sailed through both the Republican-controlled house and senate.