Point Austin: What Would Cole Porter Say?

The Hoosier composer would gaily mock Indiana's booboisie

Not Cole Porter
Not Cole Porter

The silver lining – or perhaps golden backlash – of the state of Indiana's enactment of a "religious freedom restoration" law designed in fact to enable anti-gay discrimination has been the enormous outpouring of public opposition. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and the allied reactionaries who promoted the law may have anticipated some resistance from LGBT activists, perhaps a liberal organization or two (opposition in fact useful to right-wing politicians as fundraising fodder). But they certainly didn't expect national outrage, massive public demonstrations, and widespread criticism and even boycotts from major companies and business organizations. When you've lost Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, Tom Cook, Dave Letterman, Angie's List – and the Indianapolis Star – it's time to start rethinking your position.

Pence and the lawmakers have been scrambling to do just that, but as opponents were pointing out this week, they won't be able to "clarify" the law as nondiscriminatory without radically rewriting it, or repealing it altogether. Despite Pence's insistence to the contrary, the law is not the same as the existing state "RFRA" laws, or the similar federal law. Although those laws can also be abused (e.g., to defend church real estate from zoning regs), they are aimed primarily at government action intruding on religious practices or beliefs, and have done good service in that role. The Indiana law is expressly designed to give an affirmative defense to private businesses which engage in discrimination on "religious" grounds.

The same defense was once employed to justify racial discrimination, until the Civil Rights Movement (and laws) put an end to that malicious nonsense. Currently, some religious leaders (by no means all) are attempting similar claims against same-sex couples – that businesses have a right to discriminate against gays, on grounds of religious belief.

In the end, that specious defense will also come to nothing, but not without the sort of public and community pressure now exploding against Indiana – and reportedly Arkansas as well, where Gov. Asa Hutch­in­son is having second thoughts about signing into law that state's just-passed RFRA.

Even Educated Fleas Do It

As a longtime expatriate Hoosier, I lament Midwestern pecksniffery, but Texans can hardly hold up our state as a beacon of legislative progress. At the Capitol, no less than 20 similarly discriminatory or related laws are under consideration, in the current wave of conservative sexual hysteria aimed at anyone who apparently doesn't fit the conventional gender dichotomy. Texas Freedom Network (www.tfn.org) has compiled a handy list of the bills that would variously legalize discrimination (including enshrining it in the state constitution), forbid municipalities to ban discrimination, obstruct any attempt to legalize same-sex marriage – and most ludicrously, mandate gender-policing for anyone who might attempt to use the "wrong" restroom.

This list doesn't even include laws founded more broadly in attempts to police sexual activity of any kind. Those include the biennial attacks on women's health care and Planned Parenthood, and this week's absurd budget shifting of millions in funding for desperately necessary sex education into "abstinence" education – the latter repeatedly demonstrated to fail at its intended purpose.

Given the state of our politics, here and elsewhere, the legislative trend is likely to get worse before it gets better, and the tedious lesson remains much the same: If we don't elect public officials worthy of the name, we get the public officials we deserve.

Let's Do It

I say that in part because it's so abundantly clear that when it comes to matters of private sexuality in general and LGBT rights in particular, the culture and community as a whole have left the politicians far behind. It's one thing for pop singers or movie stars to condemn gay-bashing legislation; but when Apple, Eli Lilly, and Wal-Mart (not to mention the Texas Association of Business) all do the same, the right-wing politicians have gone far out on a cultural limb, and are merrily sawing it off behind them. The companies have come to understand that discrimination – at least in statutory form – is bad for their brands and therefore bad for business, as amply demonstrated by the national backlash against the Indiana law.

Nevertheless, the Republican presidential field, such as it is – Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, the Ricks Perry and Santorum, and Ted Cruz – are standing with Pence and "religious freedom," even as the rest of the country stands appalled. That's a line truly drawn in political sand, especially when even a predominately conservative Supreme Court appears poised to reject state bans on same-sex marriage. That may be small or temporary comfort for those of us watching the biennial march of reaction under the Capitol dome, where a heavily gerrymandered Legislature remains determined to resist the progressive wave of history and the culture.

Yet those benighted bozos are neither inevitable nor invulnerable, folks – it will just take many more of us recognizing that elections do matter, and have real consequences. A familiar lesson, yes – but not so arcane that we all can't master it.

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Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Indiana, Texas Legislature 2015, RFRA, Mike Pence

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