The Republican Party's culture wars are alive and well. And they’ve got the State of the Union guests to prove it.
According to the conservative group Liberty Counsel, their client Kentucky clerk Kim Davis will attend Tuesday’s address as “a visible reminder of the [Obama] Administration’s attack on religious liberty and an encouragement for people of faith to stand.” Davis became a hero for so-called “religious freedom” advocates last year when she spent five nights behind bars for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — an act, she maintains, that would have violated her Christian beliefs.
Davis is a guest of Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, who chairs the conservative House Freedom Caucus. "Kim Davis used our ticket. Our staff heard from the Family Research Council that Ms. Davis and her family hoped to attend the State of the Union address and so we offered a ticket,” Jordan said in a statement to NBC News.
Also in attendance at Tuesday’s State of the Union will be two members of the Colorado-based Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged, a Catholic nonprofit challenging the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that group insurance plans offer contraceptive coverage to employees at no additional cost. Specifically, Little Sisters of the Poor is challenging a federal accommodation that requires religious nonprofits to submit a formal objection to including contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans, so that their health insurance issuers or a third-party administrator can provide the coverage directly.
The group is the best-known plaintiff in a yet another consolidated challenge to the healthcare law that the Supreme Court will hear later this year. House Speaker Paul Ryan invited its members to attend the State of the Union.
What both Davis and the Little Sisters demonstrate is an unwillingness among Republicans to abandon the culture wars that many have warned will hurt the party’s chances of appealing to an increasingly diverse and tolerant general electorate. Fifty-eight percent of millennials — who will soon replace baby boomers as the nation’s largest voting bloc — believe that privately owned corporations should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception, according to a 2015 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. Seventy-nine percent of millennials, meanwhile, said in a recent poll by the Pew Research Center that they favor marriage for same-sex couples.
So maybe Republicans can’t champion their opposition to same-sex nuptials and reproductive rights with quite the same fervor as they once did. But they can repackage it. And that’s what “religious freedom” is all about.
In terms of the LGBT equality movement, “religious freedom” has grown to become its primary foe, with proponents seeking to create legislative carve-outs within marriage equality or nondiscrimination laws. Last year, Republican lawmakers introduced nearly 90 bills in state legislatures across the country that would have allowed people to use religion as justification for discriminating against LGBT people, according to Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. She said in a recent press call that she was “preparing for another aggressive push” on the “religious freedom” front in 2016.
President Obama is expected to tout the many strides his administration has taken toward advancing LGBT equality at Tuesday’s State of Union address, the last of his presidency. It’s a long list — including ending don't ask, don't tell, the military’s former ban on openly gay service members; signing an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity; and supporting a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, just to name a few.
Among the 25 guests in the first lady’s box will be Jim Obergefell, the named plaintiff in the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges, which made marriage equality the law of the land. It’s a gesture meant to signify the Obama administration’s consistent effort to expand the rights of LGBT Americans — successes that will surely make up a significant portion of the president’s legacy.
But if Obergefell’s presence is a nod toward history and all that has been achieved, Davis’ signifies the fights on the horizon — ones that Obergefell himself hopes Obama addresses.
“I want him to talk about the great accomplishments our country has experienced throughout this administration,” Obergefell told reporters at a press conference Tuesday. “Hopefully he’ll also talk about how we still have work to do.”