Likely 2016 Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush threw his support on Thursday behind religious discrimination legislation, warning that an upcoming ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court on marriage equality would make such measures necessary. The former Florida governor made the remarks on the steps of the Georgia Statehouse when asked about the legislation pending in that state, but his response -- which was often convoluted -- was broad enough to apply to all such bills everywhere.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments fairly soon on marriage equality, and civil-right proponents are cautiously optimistic that the court majority will endorse equal marriage rights for all. Depending on the shape and scope of the ruling, the practical effect of a court victory will likely mean same-sex couples will be able to get legally married, as is already the case in most states.
But how the right responds to this scenario is another matter entirely. Some, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), have pointed to a possible effort to change the U.S. Constitution. At the state level, meanwhile, Republican policymakers in places like Georgia, Arkansas, and Oklahoma are taking up bills "that would make it easier for businesses and individuals to opt out of serving gay couples on religious grounds."
It's not an entirely new fight. Last year, then-Gov. Jan Brewer (R) of Arizona vetoed a related right-to-discriminate measure. But with the high court weighing in, and several states scurrying to act, the fight is taking on additional salience.
Complicating matters, of course, is that this is unfolding in the midst of a burgeoning presidential campaign, with several Republican candidates trying to convince a far-right GOP base that they're the right's standard bearer. Yesterday, Jeb Bush weighed in on the subject for the first time.
If the former governor is looking for a way to present himself as a forward-thinking candidate, this is the wrong way to go.
The audio quality isn't ideal, but to my ear, Jeb Bush told reporters, when asked about the pending proposal in Georgia, "I don't know about the law, but religious freedom is a serious issue, and it's increasingly so, and I think people that act on their conscience shouldn't be discriminated against, for sure. And there should be protections, and so, as it relates to marriage equality -- that may change, the Supreme Court may change that -- that automatically then shifts the focus to people of conscience, and out of their faith make -- they want to, um, act on their faith, and may not be able to be employed for example."
That said, he reportedly added, "People have a right to do that, just as we need to be respectful for people who are in long-term committed relationships. Sorting that out is important."
Admittedly, the awkwardness of Bush's syntax makes this more difficult than it should be. It sounded like the Florida Republican wants "protections" for "people of conscience" who want to discriminate. Indeed, he said people who "act on their conscience shouldn't be discriminated against" -- as if prohibitions on discrimination is itself a form of discrimination.
This doesn't have to be complicated. If marriage equality becomes the law of the land, should businesses legally be able to put a sign in the window that says, "We don't serve gay couples"? Can employers legally announce a job opening and declare, "Only straight people need apply"?
It should make for an interesting debate among GOP presidential hopefuls.