After making major leaps forward under the most assertively pro-gay rights administration in U.S. history, LGBT groups are girding for a far different experience in states where Republicans control the levers of government.
More than 70 bills that would roll back LGBT rights, block transgender people from using the restrooms of their choice or allow denial of service on religious grounds have been introduced in nearly two dozen states across the country this year. Republican majorities in state legislatures have created a wider battlefield, forcing gay rights supporters to play defense.
November’s electoral results, when Republicans captured control of the White House, Congress and states across the country, were “a repudiation in part of the radical attempt of the left to redefine marriage and redefine sex and ram it down everyone’s throat,” said Quena Gonzalez, director of state and local affairs at the conservative Family Research Council.
Texas legislators are debating Senate Bill 6, which would prohibit cities or counties from requiring private entities to allow people to use the bathroom or locker room of their choice. Similar measures have been introduced in Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina and Washington.
“School authorities have the responsibility and the right to protect the privacy, safety and dignity of all students in intimate settings like locker rooms,” said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia.
But after North Carolina’s experience, when a number of prominent sports leagues pulled events and businesses canceled plans to locate or expand facilities in the wake of H.B. 2’s passage, action on some measures has slowed.
The Texas Association of Business estimated the state could lose $8.5 billion in economic activity if their version of H.B. 2 passes. Another so-called bathroom bill died in the Virginia legislature earlier this month. South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R), who vetoed a bathroom bill last year, has signaled he will do so again if the legislature sends him another version.
“We’re seeing a lot of these same states introduce bills for the second time,” said Cathryn Oakley, legislative counsel at the Human Rights Campaign. “We aren’t seeing them move the same way this year that they have moved previously.”
A second set of bills, commonly referred to as religious freedom laws or First Amendment Defense Acts, would permit individuals to refuse service to LGBT individuals if their reasons for doing so are based on religious beliefs.
Some of the measures cover those who provide wedding services and object to same-sex unions. Others, like a proposal in Alabama, would allow child welfare service offices to refuse to place a child in a home of a relative if that relative is gay, lesbian or transgender. Still others would allow domestic violence shelters to refuse entry to LGBT people.
Along with Alabama, religious freedom measures have been introduced in Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington and Illinois.
“There’s an organic groundswell of opposition to having folks sued and railroaded and being forced to toe an ideological line,” Gonzalez said. “People should have a right of conscience, whether they agree with or don’t the Supreme Court’s redefinition of marriage.”
LGBT groups say those laws amount to government-sponsored discrimination, even for services paid for with taxpayer dollars.
“They’re providing social services with taxpayer funds and yet they are not required to serve the members of the public whose taxes are providing those services,” Oakley said.
Virginia’s version of the bill would protect businesses from an executive order signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in January, which would block recipients of state grants from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. That order, Cobb said, would put at risk money for religious charities that provide social goods.
“You’re talking about Catholic charities, you’re talking about refugee resettlements. These are services in our communities that matter a whole lot,” Cobb said. “The passage of this bill is a reasonable response to the unconstitutional act of intimidation and bullying.”
One religious freedom measure that passed last year, in Mississippi, gives gay-rights groups hope that they will be able to challenge others in court. A federal judge in 2016 blocked the Mississippi law, just days before it was to take effect.
In several states, LGBT groups are opening their own fronts against so-called conversion therapy, which purports to make gay people straight. Five states — California, Oregon, Illinois, New Jersey and Vermont — as well as the District of Columbia already ban conversion therapy. Legislators in Hawaii, Idaho, New Hampshire and Rhode Island will consider bans this year.
Both sides believe the national debate over LGBT rights has changed, now that former President Obama is no longer in office. President Trump’s administration has trod carefully on LGBT issues, but Republicans in states have moved more aggressively.
Oakley pointed to North Carolina, where Republican Gov. Pat McCrory lost his reelection bid — at the same time Trump won the state. That should be a lesson to legislators, Oakley said, that fighting gay rights is a fraught political position.
“Being anti-LGBT is not a way to win an election,” Oakley said. “The election certainly put state legislators thinking about these issues in a different way.”
Cobb said gay-rights supporters had overplayed their hand, and the resulting legislative push represents a backlash.
“The increasing frequency with which Americans are seeing people punished because of their religious beliefs is resulting in a better understanding of religious freedom,” she said.