I’m sure we’ve all been agog this week watching the drama in Indiana unfold. Governor Mike Pence signed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (SB 101) on March 26th, and immediately the internet erupted.
Now, there are other RFRAs out there (and stay tuned for a post on the significance of political semantics where those laws are concerned!) but Indiana’s was different in two very significant ways: it allowed corporations the same rights as people (thanks to that Hobby Lobby ruling we all said would lead to lower and more despicable things), and it removed the necessity of government agency for the law to be breached. Rather than requiring the state to make a person/corporation act against their religious principles, this bill allowed for cases to be brought between and against individuals.
The obvious intent of this was clear: to allow businesses to pick and choose their clientele, within the bounds set out by wider state and federal laws regarding protected classes of citizens. So you couldn’t say your religion wouldn’t let you serve pizza to a black couple, because race is a protected class, but you could refuse service to a gay or trans* couple, because sexual orientation and gender identity were not.
What we had, then, was a right to discriminate law aimed pretty much exclusively at LGBT folk, couched in terms of “protecting religion” rather than oppressing minorities.
Now, to give the general public credit, most people saw through the transparent veil lawmakers had drawn and immediately called the law out for what it was. The story was picked up by scores of news sites and debate snowballed rapidly. People spoke of boycotting Indiana, and a number of high-profile companies and conventions announced plans to cut ties with the state.
Under a slew of criticism, today Pence signed an amendment to the bill, fixing what was officially deemed a misinterpretation or loophole in the original, and in so doing cemented the rights of LGBT citizens as a protected class in Indiana (at least as far as the RFRA is concerned). The fix states in no uncertain terms that the bill does not permit any business to refuse service based on an LGBT identity, nor can it be used to support any lawsuit arguing for such.
Well, yes and no.
See, I’ve been watching this unfold, and my cynical little mind has been busily whirring. Usually I keep my cynicism to myself, but this time I feel like sharing.
Firstly, let’s talk about Memories Pizza. I’m sure you’ve heard about them. They’re the company whose owners stuck their heads over the parapet and said that thanks to this new bill, they could (and would) refuse to cater a gay wedding because of their religious beliefs.
Now, I’m as guilty as anyone of sharing this story when it broke. This is the internet, and sharing is what we do. More and more sites picked it up, and the more the left wing screamed in outrage, the more the right wing bellowed discrimination. This, they claimed, was why religious expression needed to be protected. Because commie leftist bastards had sworn never to order pizza from that store, had slammed it with 1* reviews on every site where it was listed, and generally subjected the owners to a fair amount of online abuse, the upshot of which was the announcement that the shop was closing, at least until the drama died down.
At the time of writing, the GoFundMe page set up to donate to the owners of Memories Pizza stands at over $150,000, and that number is rising rapidly.
The sad thing is, I predicted two days ago that this would happen.
Let’s look at the facts objectively. A small, family-run pizza parlour (and who doesn’t love pizza?), who didn’t mind gay customers (because they’re magnanimous like that) didn’t want to cater a gay wedding (because that’s what all same-sex couples want at their weddings: cold pizza). Doesn’t it seem a bit… odd? If I was a reporter looking for someone to say they were going to take advantage of this law to refuse service, I think I’d try any number of dressmakers and florists and cake shops before I approached a pizza parlour. Why a pizza parlour? Why on earth would those people ever think anyone would want them to cater a wedding? Is that something they’ve done often in the past? I doubt it.
No, it strikes me as more likely the pizza parlour approached the news reporters with that story. But why would they do that? Perhaps to show that there were some Indianans who welcomed the law and were going to take advantage of it. Perhaps. Anything’s possible. But it’s definitely more likely they did it for publicity, knowing there was a good chance it would go viral, like similar stories with florists and cake shops have done before them.
Except that virality wasn’t exactly good business for the other companies involved, at least on the surface, so why would you risk your family’s income when you could just as easily have kept your head down until (if ever) you were forced to confront the issue?
Well how about because you knew you were going to earn a year or more’s income overnight simply for speaking out?
The right wing love a martyr, and in these days when we seem to crowdfund everything from cancer treatment to buying a sandwich, of course someone was going to set up a funding page for a company “forced to close” — not through bigotry, but through their own stupidity in speaking out and putting themselves into a hypothetical situation which we all know wouldn’t ever have actually happened.
More though, imagine if there was a company behind them, some well-funded anti-LGBT group looking for new martyrs to bolster their campaigns and their coffers. What if this hypothetical group reached out to Christians in Indiana and suggested that there was compensation available for anyone who said they’d turn gays away?
I’m not saying that’s what happened, I’m just saying this is the way my cynical little mind works.
The other thought to cross my mind was this: the writing is on the wall as far as LGBT rights go. The laws haven’t caught up yet, but public opinion has shifted dramatically in the last decade. Those bleating their religions are being repressed by the existence of gay people are increasingly seen as outdated, out of touch, and out of order. But they’re also core votes for the GOP, and the Tea Party in particular. These people have long memories and are wedded to the ballot box, and any right-wing politician who wants their support cannot afford to tell them their time has been and gone. Note, for instance, how every GOP Presidential candidate spoke out in favour of SB 101, despite the huge outcry against it.
So what’s a politician to do?
Imagine, if you will, being the governor of a right wing state. Your job security comes from a conservative faction who want to see compulsory church attendance and the gays crushed under their heels. But you know appeasing them will piss off pretty much everyone else, drain money from a state already strapped for cash, and make you look like an ignorant fool as you defend the laws you pass in increasingly higher courts, always losing, always wasting money, looking more and more ineffective and becoming increasingly unpopular with absolutely everybody. Certainly you wouldn’t seem like the sort of dynamic leader who gets things done and one day might be Presidential nominee material yourself.
So you concoct a plan. You’ll pass a RFRA which will make your core voters very, very happy, because this won’t be a RFRA like the federal law, or like those passed in any other states before yours. This will have a wide-open exemption to be used against LGBT folk, because your core voters wouldn’t consider for a second making gay people a protected class of citizen. The moment the internet gets wind of it, there will be a colossal hullabaloo. People will demand boycotts, businesses will stop investing, and the economy of your entire state will hang in the balance.
As a decisive and dynamic leader, you will sweep in with your underwear over your pants and save the day by passing an amendment in record time, closing that loophole, and neatly modernising your laws by making LGBT citizens a protected class (at least as far as religious discrimination goes) without needing to go through all the trouble of getting people to actually agree to it beforehand.
The internet drama will die down because the internet has a short memory and most of the people screeching about your RFRA probably couldn’t point out Indiana on a map if their lives depended on it, and it won’t hurt your career in-state because people outside your core demographic (a) forget easily, (b) don’t vote, and (c) even if they do, you’re now the guy who signed the law making LGBT folk a (limited) protected class and can paint yourself as a hero in their eyes. And as for your core voters, you’re the guy who not only signed the most sweeping RFRA the States has yet seen (and no matter how it ended, that wasn’t your fault), and you’re the guy who came Hasselhoffing in when the economy was in peril and saved them all from abject poverty.
It’s a tidy little scenario, isn’t it?
While I’m not saying for a moment that’s what actually happened in any instance (and I am saying I certainly have watched too much House of Cards), the outcome is the same. We’ve got LGBT protections in place, the right wing voters who feel their religion was somehow being oppressed have been placated, and when the dust from this brouhaha settles, Mike Pence won’t be any worse off. He may even be in a much better position.
So what can we do to prevent these things from happening? First and last, vote. I cannot stress that enough. Every single vote cast is worth a million likes and shares and reblogs on the internet. The left wing is consistently hampered by people who have plenty of opinions online, but do nothing to ensure people who share those opinions hold positions of political power. Get the fuck to the ballot box every. single. time. Get involved in local politics, rather than waiting to be outraged over the next big news story, otherwise it might be your hometown people are threatening to boycott next.
Secondly, we all need longer memories. We need to delve into the past and look at a politician’s record every time they’re up for (re)election. When they kick us under the bus, we need to remember whose boot was on our arses.
We also need to think about the power the internet has and how we wield it. When a story outrages us, do we really need to share it, or is it sometimes better to let it die an ignoble death? If the left wing (and I include myself here) hadn’t got so predictably worked up over a pizza parlour not wanting to cater a gay wedding, the story would have sunk like a stone. Local people could well have boycotted the place, but without national coverage, the owners wouldn’t have raked in thousands in compensation.
The fact is, left wing or right, the media and politicians are pulling all our strings. Sometimes it’s worth peering behind the veil and seeing who the puppetmaster really is. Sometimes a little bit of cynicism is just what the world needs most.