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From Jeb Bush to Ted Cruz, likely GOP candidates back Indiana's new religious freedom law

Jeb Bush praised Indiana's controversial new law on Monday. "We're going to need this," he said.
Jeb Bush praised Indiana's controversial new law on Monday. "We're going to need this," he said.
Scott Olson / Getty

Indiana's controversial religious freedom law has opened a new front in the culture wars — one that's already dividing the Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls.

Before Monday, it was still possible for many apparent GOP candidates to find a middle ground on the new law, which could let businesses deny services to LGBT people for religious reasons. With a nationwide outcry and condemnation from figures including Apple CEO Tim Cook, actor George Takei, and pop star Miley Cyrus — and with some Indiana Republicans already pushing for changes to the law to state that discrimination against gays is unacceptable — there was an opportunity. Republican hopefuls could have, say, backed the principles behind the Indiana law but argued in favor of proposed changes to protect gay rights.

That's not what happened. Instead, likely GOP candidates from Jeb Bush to Ted Cruz came out defending the controversial law as a great idea and an important protection for religious liberties. And, an important note, these politicians were unafraid to specifically argue that bakers, florists, and photographers should be able to turn down LGBT couples seeking their services at wedding ceremonies due to religious opposition.

The upshot? In this suddenly hot issue, the GOP contenders have chosen a side. In doing so, they've aligned themselves with social conservatives in a way that will help them in primaries. But with American attitudes shifting and the public already evenly split on this specific topic, these moves risk further tarnishing the GOP's brand on gay issues and driving away young and socially liberal voters.

Top GOP candidates specifically said the law should let religious bakers, photographers, and florists deny services for LGBT weddings

Days ago, Hillary Clinton strongly condemned the Indiana law in a tweet, calling it discriminatory. Republican presidential candidates, by contrast, mostly held off until Monday.

Then, apparent GOP frontrunner Jeb Bush — facing challenges from several hopefuls positioning themselves to his right — spoke out on Indiana's law for the first time on The Hugh Hewitt Show. "I think Governor Pence has done the right thing," Bush said. "This is simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs, to have, to be able to be people of conscience. I just think once the facts are established, people aren’t going to see this as discriminatory at all."

Bush cited "incidents" like a florist in Washington state and a photographer in New Mexico who, "based on their conscience," didn't want to participate in LGBT wedding ceremonies and ended up in court. "We're going to need this," Bush said, adding that our society had to "respect and be tolerant of people's lifestyles, but allow for people of faith to be able to exercise theirs."

Marco Rubio also specifically cited the example of same-sex weddings. "What about the religious liberties of Americans who do not want to feel compelled by law to provide a catering service or a photography service to a same-sex marriage that their faith teaches is wrong?" he asked on Fox News Monday. "That's a valid constitutional concern."

Rubio made the case, as he has previously, that denial of services from caterers or photographers wouldn't be discrimination against LGBT customers. "No one's saying that it should be legal to deny someone service at a restaurant or a hotel because of their sexual orientation," Rubio said. Yet, he asked, "Should someone who provides a professional service be punished by the law because they refuse to provide that professional service to a ceremony that they believe is in violation of their faith?"

Scott Walker, for his part, hasn't yet commented on the Indiana law directly. But his spokesperson backed the general principle behind the laws on Sunday, saying, "As a matter of principle, Gov. Walker believes in broad religious freedom and the right for Americans to exercise their religion and act on their conscience."

The lower-tier contenders who spoke about the statement were strongly supportive. "Indiana is giving voice to millions of courageous conservatives across this country who are deeply concerned about the ongoing attacks upon our personal liberties," Ted Cruz said in a statement. "It is absolutely vital that we do all we can to allow Americans to practice their religious ways, while simultaneously ensuring that no one’s beliefs infringe upon those of others," Ben Carson told Breitbart News.

Rand Paul doesn't seem to have spoken up yet. But CNN quotes him saying in 2014, about a similar law in Arizona, that while "the right to be free in your business decisions is out there ... I'm not real excited about laws that sort of say you can deny people service." (Paul was famously pilloried by the press in 2010 after musing that the Civil Rights Act might have interfered too much with the freedoms of private businesses.)

The general election politics of this issue might be different

Polling has shown the nation split on the issue. Last September, the Pew Research Center found that when asked whether wedding services businesses should be allowed to refuse services to same-sex couples on religious grounds, 49 percent of respondents said no and 47 percent said yes.

The opposition is concentrated mainly among white evangelical Protestants, 71 percent of whom supported allowing businesses to refuse. Notably, black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics both supported requiring businesses to serve same-sex couples by nearly 2-to-1 margins.

Unsurprisingly, then, some Republicans unconcerned with presidential primary politics have been more hesitant to embrace the new law.

For instance, North Carolina's Republican Governor Pat McCrory made clear that he opposes a similar law being pushed in his state, the Charlotte Observer reports. "What is the problem they're trying to solve?" McCrory asked. (McCrory faces what could be a tight reelection in 2016.)

Correction: This article originally flipped the results of the Pew poll.