Politics & Government

Orlando shootings won’t change GOP stance on gay-rights issues

A member of the audience wears a shirt that reads "Yay Gay" as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally at a warehouse for the company "Team Wendy," which produces helmets for military, law enforcement, and rescue teams, in Cleveland, Monday.
A member of the audience wears a shirt that reads "Yay Gay" as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally at a warehouse for the company "Team Wendy," which produces helmets for military, law enforcement, and rescue teams, in Cleveland, Monday. AP

The Orlando massacre is unlikely to mean much change in how the Republican Party deals with gay rights.

The Sunday shootings gave the GOP, long struggling to erase an image of intolerance, a big stage to show its support and sympathy for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans. But a day later there was little sign that the party would take the opportunity to alter its positions on key gay-rights issues.

Presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump on Monday emphasized his belief that cracking down on terrorists would be a boost for gay rights. Meanwhile, other influential party voices are expected to insist that the party take a strong stand for “religious liberty” in the Republican platform, a phrase used to describe legislation that critics charge allows religious conservatives to cite their beliefs in discriminating against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.

Gay-rights advocates say such legislation merely masks opposition to same-sex marriage, something the Supreme Court ruled a constitutionally protected right one year ago.

What might be different when the party’s platform committee begins meeting July 11 is the tone. “I don’t know if it changes the arguments. Maybe it changes the tenor,” said Ed Martin, president of the Eagle Forum, the Alton, Illinois-based conservative group active on Republican platform issues.

“Religious liberty” has been an important rallying cry for conservatives. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, whose supporters will have a big say on the platform, made the issue a centerpiece of his presidential campaign.

Trump was cheered last week when he told the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Washington conference he would uphold “religious freedom, the right for people of faith to freely practice their faith, so important.”

Republican gay-rights activists said they were heartened Monday by at least part of Trump’s comments after the shootings.

“I refuse to allow America to become a place where gay people, Christian people, and Jewish people, are the targets of persecution and intimidation by radical Islamic preachers of hate and violence,” the New York real-estate mogul said in a speech on terrorist issues.

Our nation stands together in solidarity with the members of Orlando's LGBT Community.

Donald Trump

Trump suggested the way to assure rights for gay people and others is to get tougher on terrorism. “A radical Islamic terrorist targeted the nightclub not only because he wanted to kill Americans, but in order to execute gay and lesbian citizens because of their sexual orientation,” he said.

This tie to national security is expected to be a recurring Republican theme, a way of showing how the GOP aims to protect gay rights.

“The Orlando shootings are a reminder of the major issues facing the country,” said Roger Beckett, executive director of the Ashbrook Center in Ohio, a research center named for a former conservative Republican congressman that offers instructional programs on government.

Gregory Angelo, president of Log Cabin Republicans, an organization representing gay conservatives and their allies, said he found Trump’s statements and those of other GOP candidates a “tipping point in the LGBT rights movement in the United States.”

At least, he said, they were acknowledging that gay people had been targeted for attack. And that’s better than what happened after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when televangelists blamed gays among others for the catastrophe.

The reaction after Orlando, Angelo said, shows “that people can have civil disagreements about things like marriage, but come together when Americans are attacked simply because of who they are.”

Every human being has a right to live according to his or her faith and conscience, and nobody has a right to murder someone who doesn’t share their faith or sexual orientation.

Sen. Ted Cruz, after the Orlando shootings

But none of that means any big policy or platform change is imminent.

Across the country, Republicans have backed measures in the name of religious freedom that many gay-rights activists find offensive. In Indiana last year, for example, Gov. Mike Pence signed legislation barring state and local governments from hindering people’s ability to practice their religion. Though sexual orientation wasn’t specifically mentioned in the measure, many saw it as permitting businesses to deny services to LGBT people.

After major corporations threatened to stop doing business in the state, Pence relented.

That didn’t stop others. After North Carolina passed HB2, its “bathroom law,” this spring limiting transgender people to the restrooms of their birth sex, the Obama administration issued a directive telling school systems to permit students to use the restrooms that align with their gender identity. A dozen states are challenging that action in a federal lawsuit.

61 Percentage of people in a Gallup poll last month who said same-sex marriages should be recognized by law as valid

The challenge for the Republican Party remains the same. In a report on how to expand the GOP, a high-level party study urged “We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too.”

However, no one is predicting any big breakthroughs anytime soon. “This situation is still too fluid to make any proclamations regarding the GOP platform,” said Angelo.

“Religious freedom” advocates are determined to see their principles survive, and Trump’s forces so far have sent no signals they will oppose religious liberty planks in the platform.

The Family Leader, an influential Iowa-based Christian group, “will continue to stand on the principles of the Bible in regards to God’s design for marriage and will continue to defend the unalienable right of religious liberty endowed upon us all by our Creator,” said spokesman Drew Zahn.

But thanks to Orlando, any anger will be muted. “The Orlando shootings are going to moderate that conversation,” said the Ashbrook Center’s Beckett.

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid