One of the most irritating aspects of the campaign to legalize anti-gay discrimination in the guise of “religious liberty” is the fact that anti-gay activists are so snidely mendacious about their true aims. Legislators from Arizona to Indiana have openly conceded that the intent of their bills is to protect business owners, like florists and bakers, from having to serve gay couples. Yet the right-wing media continues to sneeringly insist that anyone who detects discriminatory intent behind “religious liberty” legislation is, in one writer’s childish words, “a complete idiot.”
On Thursday, however, the façade fell away. During a Georgia House Judiciary Committee debate over the state’s new religious freedom bill, Rep. Mike Jacobs—a Republican!—called anti-gay legislators’ bluff. Jacobs proposed a simple amendment to the legislation clarifying that it must not be interpreted to legalize discrimination. Conservative representatives cried foul, asserting that an anti-discrimination amendment would defeat the purpose of the bill. When the amendment narrowly passed, conservatives quickly tabled the bill, postponing its consideration indefinitely. A religious freedom measure with an anti-discrimination provision, they decided, was not a real religious freedom measure at all.
This kerfuffle is both illuminating and, frankly, satisfying for those of us who have maintained that discrimination was the actual purpose of these bills all along. After the campaign to defeat Arizona’s religious liberty bill succeeded, the Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway called those of us who viewed the measure as discriminatory—that would include me—“ignorant,” “dumb, uneducated, and eager to deceive.” Never mind the fact that Arizona legislators openly declared that the bill’s purpose was to let businesses turn away gay couples, baking discrimination into the measure’s legislative history in a way state courts can’t ignore. In the topsy-turvy sophistry of the far right, heeding committee minutes qualified as “ignorance,” while ignoring the stated intent of a bill qualified as intelligence.
But if anti-gay conservatives have any intellectual integrity, Thursday’s Georgia dispute should put an end to this charade. Jacobs, the representative who introduced the anti-discrimination amendment, is no flaming liberal; he is a moderate Republican who was legitimately concerned that a broad measure protecting businesses’ “religious exercise” could function as a license to discriminate. If Georgia’s religious freedom bill truly wasn’t designed to legalize discrimination, this amendment would have been utterly uncontroversial. Instead, it spurred heated opposition from conservatives, who refused to support any religious liberty bill that explicitly forbade discrimination.
There’s one interesting (and revealing) coda to the Georgia conflict. Erick Erickson, a viciously anti-gay Christian commentator, has long supported the Georgia legislation in the name of religious rights.* But on Thursday, his wording suddenly shifted: Now the Georgia bill was about protecting Christians’ rights. This unsubtle revision may be due to the fact that Jacobs, the sponsor of the anti-discrimination amendment, is Jewish. In a vitriolic blog post following the vote, Erickson slammed Jacobs as “the man who wants to deny protection to Christian businesses.” Not religious businesses—Christian ones.
You’d have to be deaf not to hear that dog whistle, and you’d have to be blind not to see the desperation in Erickson and co.’s maneuvering. On Wednesday, I noted that millions of devout believers are standing up to defend their faith against those who seek to co-opt it for discriminatory purposes. Included among these millions are myriad religious groups and faith leaders—including the esteemed Anti-Defamation League—who are insulted by the notion that bigotry is a component of religious liberty. Champions of intolerance are losing, and losing badly. For a while, they found a way to shroud their goals in duplicity. Now the guise has collapsed—and everyone, even Georgia Republicans, can see the glaring animus driving this callous campaign.
* Correction, March 30, 2015: This post originally misspelled Erick Erickson's first name.