Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

It's Still Hate and Bigotry

The real story out of Indiana is not that the legislature passed, and the governor signed, a pernicious law that could sanction discrimination against gays. The real story is the furious backlash around the country that the measure provoked.

That's why Gov. Mike Pence was forced to backpedal and support an amendment stating clearly that the law did not give anyone a "license to discriminate."

The governor did not go nearly far enough. He repeatedly refused to back a broader proposal to ban any bias based on sexual orientation. And he kept blaming "very sloppy reporting" by the news media for Indiana's gaping self-inflicted wound.

Still, his partial pull-back is good news, a victory for the profound principle that all Americans are equal before the law.

The Indiana case is complicated. Deeply religious people feel besieged by the steady march of the gay rights movement, and religious liberty -- like equal protection under the law -- is a basic American ideal.

But some conservative activists have hijacked the noble concept of religious liberty. They've employed it as a weapon in the culture wars and as a justification for abusing the rights of others.

As a Catholic-Jewish couple, who will celebrate both Easter and Passover this week, we take religious liberty very seriously. But we also know a coded message when we hear it, and the message sent by Indiana was unmistakable.

As Todd Adams, a spokesman for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), an Indiana-based denomination, told the Indianapolis Star: "Our perspective is that hate and bigotry wrapped in religious freedom is still hate and bigotry."

In explaining his support for the Indiana law, Pence keeps noting that President Clinton signed a similar measure in 1993. But when it comes to gay rights, America is a very different place today than it was 22 years ago. Thirty-seven states (including Indiana) now permit gay marriage, and public opinion on the subject has shifted dramatically. In the latest Washington Post/ABC poll, 59 percent supported same-sex unions, up from 32 percent in 2004.

Even more telling: 81 percent say businesses should not be allowed to "refuse service" to gays and lesbians; only 16 percent say they should. Even if business owners say that homosexuality violates their "religious beliefs," two-thirds still oppose their right to discriminate.

Pence has also failed to understand that law is not just about technical details. It's about motive, about intent. And the motive behind this law was mean-spirited.

"The law communicates values," professor Robert Katz of the University of Indiana law school told the New York Times. "It communicates to gay and lesbian people that their rights could potentially take a second seat. It is part of the culture wars."

Pence failed to understand something else that has changed since 1993: the growing influence of gays and their supporters in the business world, especially in the high-tech sector. Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, who is openly gay, led the fight against the Indiana law, writing in the Washington Post that "America's business community recognized a long time ago that discrimination, in all its forms, is bad for business."

Many other executives joined the chorus, including Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce.com, which employs several thousand people in Indiana.

"Gov. Pence says he wants to bring the tech industry to Indiana and to increase the number of tech-related jobs in his state, but he doesn't seem to understand that a significant proportion of the tech industry is gay," he told the website Re/code. "This is one of the most important industries in the country and he has been advocating for us to expand and invest in Indiana, but you can't say that and then say you're going to legalize discrimination like this."

Other Republicans in other states have been quicker to grasp this rapidly shifting landscape. Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina, a state that depends heavily on high-tech companies, said a similar bill introduced in the legislature "makes no sense." Speaking on WFAE in Charlotte, the governor wondered, "What is the problem they're trying to solve?"

That's easy. The problem is political, not practical. Supporters of these bills are pandering to religious conservatives who are petrified by the rapid success of the gay rights movement.

But the lesson of the last week is strong and significant: Law does communicate values, and many Americans will not accept a statute that sends a message of discrimination. Even if that message is written in code.

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