In Indiana a battle is underway for the soul of conservatism. The state last year became a national battleground in the debate over religious liberty when the press and liberals accused its Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of being nothing more than legally sanctioned bigotry. The measure sought to clarify that the state would not require men and women of faith to support or endorse activities they find immoral.
Even amid that push there were signs that some in the Republican Party were forgetting that conservatism isn’t just about fiscal issues or national security issues, but involves very real and very relevant social issues as well. Among those who were losing sight of that fact were Senate President Pro Temp David Long (R) and House Speaker Brian Bosma (R).
In November 2015, Long signaled that he would help lead the fight in 2016 to amend Indiana’s civil rights law to include special protections for sexual orientation. He simultaneously stressed that the religious liberty rights of Hoosiers would not be threatened by the effort.
The result of Long’s efforts, which had the support of state Sen. Brandt Hershman and state Sen. Travis Holdman, both Republicans, was SB 344. The legislation was written in such a way that in trying to balance religious liberty against the preferences the LGBTQ community it thwarted any solution while threatening both.
Social conservatives rose up in opposition to the bill. Micah Clark of the American Family Association of Indiana said the bill and others like it “are all serious threats to religious liberty. They create special rights based upon variable sexual behaviors chosen by a few, that come at the expense of long established freedoms of speech, conscience and the exercise of religion for millions of Hoosiers.”
Ryan T. Anderson and Robert George wrote at The Witherspoon Institute that:
While these bills have some superficially appealing aspects, they would only increase cultural tensions, further empower an already powerful special-interest lobby, and impose unjustly on Hoosiers of many different faiths and all walks of life.
After a hard-fought grassroots campaign, Long and his allies decided that even after reaching out to Democrats they couldn’t muster the legislative support necessary to push the legislation through.
Other opponents of the measure included Jim Bopp, the pro-life lawyer responsible for arguing a recent high-profile campaign finance case that resulted in a landmark decision for free speech (Citizens United v. FEC), Alliance Defending Freedom, and The Heritage Foundation, which weighed in with comments critical of the legislation’s effectiveness at balancing rights against each other.
One attorney sympathetic to the LGBTQ perspective even wrote an editorial for the Indianapolis Star saying lawmakers’ proposal to eliminate the recently-enacted RFRA in exchange for a few (presumably Democratic) votes would be a mistake.
Now that the battle is over – for now – religious freedom advocates aren’t waiting around for another legislative fight. Already Sen. David Long (R) has a primary opponent challenging him this year. John Kessler is a Marine Corps veteran and economist at Indiana University-Purdue University Ft. Wayne, where he leads the Center for Economic Education. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, a free-market think-tank once led by now-Gov. Mike Pence (R).
Curt Smith of the Indiana Family Institute told the Indianapolis Star on Thursday, “Sen. Long and the other GOP Senators who voted to erode religious liberty by advancing SB 344 are extremely vulnerable to a primary challenge.”
In 2014, Long helped steer an amended version of Indiana’s proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as one man and one woman through the Senate in a move that pushed back a statewide ratification vote. If the House and Senate had approved of the original language instead of the changed wording, the measure would have been voted on by Hoosiers in the fall of 2014. The U.S. Supreme Court decision since then legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide has, for now, made the amendment a moot point.
Whether or not Indiana conservatives are able to unseat Long, who is not particularly conservative even on fiscal issues, will be a sign of how the nation’s far-from-over culture wars are playing out politically in state capitols. Indiana is a deep red state (despite barely going for President Barack Obama in 2008) and battles there are a battle for the heart and soul of the future of the conservative movement.