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February 26, 2014 12:02 PM Fork in the Road For the “Religious Liberty” Campaign

By Ed Kilgore

The heavy reversal of fortune that has afflicted the once-indomitable “religious liberty” campaign since its wishes were crystallized in Arizona’s increasingly toxic S.B. 1062 has been a wonder to behold. And Gov. Jan Brewer’s go-slow approach in reviewing the bill (she actually has until Saturday to veto it before it becomes law with or without her signature) is increasing pressure on Republican politicians everywhere to take a position on it (viz. Mitt Romney’s public plea for a veto).

The larger question is what this saga means for the “religious liberty” campaign itself, as advanced so recently by just about every GOP pol in Christendom. There appear to be three options for those wanting to keep it alive, though perhaps after a strategic retreat. The first is to come up with a model bill that is less sweeping than Arizona’s in asserting a religious right to discrimination, though legislation that focuses more specifically on, say, wedding professionals could run afoul of the Constitution on equal protection grounds by targeting same-sex couples. A second is to shift away from the entire same-sex wedding issue and refocus the campaign where it began, with religious objections to the Obamacare contraception coverage mandate. That approach, too, has its perils, insofar as it draws attention to the rather exotic views of religious conservatives about contraception and so-called “abortifacients.” A third approach is to back away from specific controversies and simply pursue a generalized culture war on behalf of believers against the infidels, conjoined with a generalized attack on the rapacious totalitarian aims of “secular socialists” led by Barack Obama.

This third option, which is probably the best bet, would involve convincing conservative legislators around the country to stand down on aggressive anti-gay (or anti-contraception) legislation, at least for the current election cycle, before more self-inflicted damage is done. This could obviously meet resistance from Christian Right activists who are heavily invested in the religious liberty campaign as a way to form a permanent alliance between conservative evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics.

I don’t know how it will all turn out, but it’s very likely some intense consultations are currently underway across the conservative landscape about how to deal with the sudden and spectacular debacle in Arizona.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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