Gov. Mike Pence leaves the March 31 press conference at the Indiana State Library in the midst of the RFRA crisis. (HPI Photo by Mark Curry)
Gov. Mike Pence leaves the March 31 press conference at the Indiana State Library in the midst of the RFRA crisis. (HPI Photo by Mark Curry)

WASHINGTON – The fierce backlash against passage of Indiana’s so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) tore through the state and the nation like an early spring tornado.  Leaving in its wake was a changed political landscape.  Here are 10 takeaways from the RFRA controversy.

1. The politics of the cultural wars have shifted dramatically. A decade ago, 60 percent of Americans opposed marriage equality. Now it’s reversed, with 60 percent in support. Democrats used to be on the wrong side of cultural issues and now it is Republicans who are. Religious conservatives in Indiana promoted RFRA as a way to strike back at a federal court’s recent decision declaring Indiana’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional. It blew up in the faces. One of the main reasons for the sea change is that millennials, people born between 1981 and 1997, are transforming America’s politics and culture. Millennials are more diverse, more tolerant, more educated, and more connected than any previous generation.  Whether or not gay people should be allowed to marry is not a moral question to them. Gov. Mike Pence and Republican leaders in Indiana ignored or failed to recognize changing views on marriage equality.

2. Most Americans are not buying the religious exemption argument. The majority of Americans are rejecting the notion that religious freedom extends to refusing service to someone who is gay, including services for gay weddings. Essentially most of us are concluding that the social contract requires that if you are going to provide a service available to the general public, you have to treat all people the same so long as they behave themselves. The federal RFRA was passed to protect religious minorities whose practices included some activities that are contrary to law, such as  Native Americans smoking marijuana. As marriage equality has been gaining support, social conservatives have been pushing to expand the original purpose of RFRA to include the ability of wedding providers to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. However, the argument that by baking a cake for a gay wedding you are endorsing something contrary to religious beliefs is simply not winning over most people.

3. Progressives were the clear winners. Even though they fell short of establishing sexual orientation as a protected class in Indiana and for that reason opposed the “fix” to RFRA, progressives won a major concession from the Republican-controlled General Assembly. The revised RFRA undercuts the law’s original intent, which was to provide religious conservatives with a legal basis to oppose gay marriage. The “fixed” law marked the first time Indiana passed legislation giving protection, though limited, to people on the basis of sexual preference. Added to their recent victory in federal court, supporters of marriage equality in Indiana are on a roll.

4. Mike Pence hurt himself badly. Gov. Pence completely misread the depth of opposition to RFRA and bungled the aftermath. Not only did he allow himself to get in the middle of a national firestorm, his claim that Indiana’s RFRA law would not allow any discrimination was patently false and everyone knew it. New York Times columnist Gail Collins called his interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week” “possibly one the worst appearances by a governor in television history.”  Pence has shredded any chance of running for president, at least in 2016. And, his inept handling of the RFRA controversy could turn what should have been an easy reelection campaign into a truly competitive one.

5. The Republican brand continues to be damaged by extreme views on social issues.
An already poor GOP public image was further damaged by the RFRA controversy.  Most of the public has concluded that the religious freedom law was discriminatory and that Republicans who backed it are religious extremists.  

6. Jeb Bush’s flip flop on RFRA exposes the divide in the Republican Party. The Republican base is forcing more Republican presidential candidates like Jeb Bush to the right, just as they pushed Mitt Romney to adopt extreme positions that made him unelectable in 2012. Social conservatives who play an outsized role in the presidential nomination process are angry by how RFRA was characterized in Indiana and they will most likely try to keep the issue alive. The odds that Republicans will once again nominate a flawed candidate increase as long as the GOP base continues to make gay marriage an issue.

7. Business is not afraid to play politics when their business interests are at stake. The CEO’s of Eli Lilly, Angie’s List, and Anthem, among many others who criticized Indiana’s RFRA law, did so primarily because the law would have been bad for business. Indiana was facing a nationwide boycott and national outrage. It is unusual for business to lobby so hard on social issues, but the involvement of Indiana businesses was key to changing RFRA.

8. Indiana’s media played a major role in torpedoing RFRA. Indiana’s media is not known for its aggressiveness, but forceful editorials against RFRA came swift and hard. The front-page editorial from the Indianapolis Star went national as did commentary by many Hoosier writers.

9. Democrats have been handed a political gift.
Unlike Republicans who were split on RFRA, Democrats were united in their opposition to the law. Whether they are able to capitalize on the debacle remains to be seen. Hoosier Democrats now have a realistic chance of defeating Pence in 2016.  A credible progressive Democratic candidate could raise millions of dollars from national organizations and off the Internet.  But it is not clear how well-positioned they are to take advantage of Pence’s stumbles. The state party has been moribund for years. Many Democratic statewide candidates in recent times, including some looking at governor now, are not known for their progressive views. If Democrats don’t move quickly and don’t remain unified, Pence may have time to repair his image. Nationally, Hillary Clinton is strong on LGBT issues and will likely be able to take advantage of the Republican divide.

10. Indiana’s reputation has been unfairly but seriously damaged. Though their views on this issue are not representative of most Hoosiers, Gov. Pence and the Republicans who supported the bill embarrassed the state. In the eyes of many across the nation, they came across as bigots and turned Indiana into another Ferguson, Missouri. The state has a lot of work to do to get its reputation back.

Sautter is a Democratic media consultant in Washington, a native Hoosier and a frequent contributor to Howey Politics Indiana.