April 2, 2015 at 6:44 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Little outcry from GOP amid opposition to Indiana law

Mark Kirk, gay news, gay politics dc, enda

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) spoke out against the Indiana religious freedom law. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Indiana’s religious freedom law has been condemned by LGBT advocates, business leaders and political figures, but silence is the general rule within the Republican Party and opposition is extremely limited.

Republicans who’ve voiced consternation over the law — which was recently amended by Gov. Mike Pence and the Indiana legislature — were few and far between, even among those considered supporters of the LGBT community. Still, those who’ve condemned the measure have done so just as strongly as other opponents of the measure.

In a statement sent out on his Twitter account, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said he opposes the Indiana law on the basis that enshrining bigotry under the law under the cover of religion is “bad practice & un-American.”

Kirk is known as the one of the most LGBT-supportive Republicans in Congress. He’s one of four U.S. senators who support marriage equality, was an original co-sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and signed a friend-of-the-court brief led by former Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman urging the Supreme Court to issue a nationwide ruling in favor of marriage equality.

But Kirk stands alone among Senate Republicans. The Washington Blade surveyed the offices of all 55 members of the U.S. Senate on the Indiana law, but none would respond with a definitive comment. Even the offices of the other three U.S. Senate Republicans who support marriage equality — Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Rob Portman (Ohio) — were silent.

On the House side, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) and Rep. Robert Dold (R-Ill.), both newly elected House members, criticized the Indiana law in its first form.

In a statement to the Blade, Curbelo said there was no reason for the Indiana to enact the statute in the first place.

“There has been no evidence that Hoosiers’ religious rights were in any way under attack,” Curbelo said. “The law was unnecessary, and I oppose it. ‎We can respect religious rights without passing laws that promote or protect discrimination in public places.”

Dold issued a statement condemning the Indiana measure and articulating support for federal LGBT non-discrimination protections in the workplace.

“We should not tolerate any law threatening our country’s obligation to treat all people equally,” Dold said. “While religious freedom is one of our most important rights as Americans, we cannot allow it to be used as a cover for discrimination and injustice. I strongly support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and other federal efforts to ensure protection from discrimination for all people.”

The other Republican members of the U.S. House who are on the record in support of marriage equality — Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), Richard Hanna (N.Y.), Charlie Dent (Pa.), David Jolly (Fla.) — didn’t respond to the Blade’s request to comment, nor did the office of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

The relative silence from Republicans seems to depart from the GOP’s stated effort to become more welcoming of the LGBT community ahead of the 2016 election. When juxtaposed with the massive outcry from business leaders, the lack of outcry is striking considering the Republican Party has traditionally been aligned with the business community.

Newly elected House members and a one-term U.S. senator also stand in contrast to the caliber of Democrats of who’ve come out against the law.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) issued statements in opposition to the measure. Potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley condemned the measure as did the White House.

Gregory Angelo, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, explained the silence by saying the issue of religious liberty is still difficult for Republicans who back LGBT rights.

“Right now Republicans are still coming to terms with how to balance religious liberty and LGBT protections,” Angelo said. “In that regard, the compromise on Indiana’s RFRA legislation could well be a light out of the darkness of the culture wars on LGBT issues, but there are still unknowns. It’s mere conjecture on my part, but I believe Republicans may be unsure of how to couch issues such as state RFRA laws in the context of the greater religious liberty and gay equality debate.”

It should be noted that although many LGBT groups pulled their support from ENDA last year because the measure’s expanded religious exemption, that language didn’t seem to faze Republican supporters of the bill, who continued to speak out in favor of it and push for passage.

Jerame Davis, executive director of Pride at Work, the LGBT arm of the AFL-CIO, said Republicans aren’t saying much because what they would have to offer publicly isn’t palatable.

“Being silent is the best many of them can offer,” Davis said. “Business provides the funding, but the religious right provides the votes these GOP lawmakers need in order to get re-elected. By remaining silent, they can avoid angering their funders by throwing red meat to the base while also avoiding potentially angering their base by voicing opposition to the law. Silence may irritate the base, but they’re not going to show up with torches and pitchforks over it.”

If anything, the Republicans who are speaking out are rallying behind the Indiana law.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) during an appearance on CNN called for “perspective” on the Indiana, raising eyebrows by saying the law isn’t as bad as it is in places like Iran, which executes men for sodomy.

“I think it’s important we have a sense of perspective,” Cotton said. “In Iran they hang you for the crime of being gay.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who declared his candidacy for the White House last week, issued a statement defending the Indiana law and efforts to protect “religious liberty.”

“I want to commend Gov. Mike Pence for his support of religious freedom, especially in the face of fierce opposition,” Cruz said. “There was a time, not too long ago, when defending religious liberty enjoyed strong bipartisan support. Alas, today we are facing a concerted assault on the First Amendment, on the right of every American to seek out and worship God according to the dictates of his or her conscience.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), another potential presidential contender, has vaguely said he opposes discrimination, but individuals shouldn’t be punished for denying services for religious reasons.

Other potential Republican presidential contenders — Bobby Jindal and Ben Carson — have come out in strong support for the Indiana law. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said at the start of this week that Pence has “done the right thing” by signing the law, but later said during a fundraising event “we shouldn’t discriminate based on sexual orientation” and Indiana will “probably get to that place.”

Justin Nelson, co-founder and president of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, said he thinks Republicans are being careful about what they say about the law despite opposition from the business community.

“Having seen all the coverage, they are likely making a political calculation,” Nelson said. “I think they are worried about alienating their base by speaking out against the bills and worried about alienating general election voters by speaking out in support.”

UPDATE: This article has been updated with a statement from Rep. Dold in opposition to the Indiana law.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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