NEW YORK – In a striking shift from recent years, major legislation curtailing LGBT rights has been completely stymied in state capitols around the country this year amid anxiety by Republican leaders over igniting economic backlash if they are depicted as discriminatory.
In the thick of this year’s legislative sessions, LGBT activists were tracking about 120 proposed bills that they viewed as threats to their civil rights. Not one of them has been enacted as many sessions now wind down; only two remain under serious consideration.
A key factor in the shift: In the Republican-led states where these types of bills surface, moderate GOP lawmakers and business leaders are increasingly wary of losing conventions, sporting events and corporate headquarters.
North Carolina, Indiana and Arizona were among the states that faced similar backlash in recent years over such legislation.
“Being anti-equality is not considered good politics anymore,” said legislative specialist Cathryn Oakley of the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT rights organization.
Just two years ago, it seemed that the state-level bills might proliferate. North Carolina passed a bill restricting transgender people’s bathroom access and Mississippi enacted a sweeping law allowing state employees and private businesses to deny services to LGBT people based on religious objections. Seven states have passed laws allowing faith-based adoption agencies some degree of protection if they refuse to place children with same-sex couples.
To the extent that the tide has turned, it’s due partly to the fallout over the North Carolina bill in 2016. The NCAA and NBA pulled games from the state; there were projections before lawmakers rolled back the restrictions that the law would cost the state several billion dollars in lost business.
The change in momentum at the state level comes at a time when conservatives have a strong ally in President Donald Trump on the issue. His administration is seeking to exclude transgender people from military service and promoting exemptions that could enable businesses, health care providers and others to refuse to accommodate LGBT people based on their religious beliefs.
Later this year, perhaps in June, a potentially momentous ruling is expected from the U.S. Supreme Court on whether businesses that serve the public can cite religious objections to refuse service to LGBT people, even in states that protect them in their nondiscrimination laws. The case involves a Colorado baker who did not want to make a cake for a same-sex couple to celebrate their wedding.
Some conservatives suggest legislative leaders are treading softly on these issues now for fear of provoking big corporations and pro sports leagues that support LGBT rights.
“The left is leveraging the cultural and economic power of big businesses like Amazon and Apple to force smaller businesses and nonprofits that hold traditional views on marriage to shut down,” contends attorney Emilie Kao, a religious freedom expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
This year, certainly, conservatives have struggled to gain much traction at the state level on LGBT-related issues. Among the many bills that failed:
—A Tennessee measure that would have required the state to defend schools in court if they were sued for limiting transgender students’ access to bathrooms.
—A South Dakota bill that would have required signs on some public restroom doors notifying users that a person of the opposite sex might be inside.
—A “religious liberties” bill in Georgia that would have given legal protection to faith-based adoption agencies that decline to place children with same-sex couples.
An ever-growing number of states — at least a dozen — have passed bills banning the practice of “gay conversion therapy” on minors. And voters in Anchorage, Alaska, rejected a ballot measure that would have restricted transgender people’s access to public restrooms.
The two remaining bills being tracked by LGBT groups — in Kansas and Oklahoma — are similar to Georgia’s adoption bill. Supporters say they are needed to ensure that faith-based agencies which oppose same-sex marriage can still help accommodate the rising number of children entering foster care due to the opioid crisis.
Without the bills, Kao says faith-based agencies face potential lawsuits by LGBT-rights groups “because they follow their beliefs that every child deserves both a mother and a father.”
The changing dynamics across the U.S. reflect the growing political clout of LGBT groups.
Megadonor Tim Gill has become one of the nation’s leading philanthropists for LGBT causes, spending tens of millions of dollars from his fortune accrued from a software company he started. One of his priorities now is to move beyond “the easy states” and build new alliances in Republican-controlled states that could pave the way for non-discrimination laws.
His Denver-based foundation is helping bankroll a national campaign being launched this week by the Ad Council, known for iconic public service ad campaigns including Smokey the Bear and “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk.” Called “Beyond I Do,” it makes the point that while same-sex marriage is now legal nationwide, LGBT people still face legal discrimination in a majority of states — including getting evicted, fired or denied services.
Only 19 states — mostly Democratic strongholds — offer comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for gays, lesbians and transgender people.
The new ad campaign is projected to get at least $15 million in donated media support — including TV and radio time, and billboard space. Among the people featured in more than 25 video spots are a Michigan couple who said a pediatrician refused to treat their newborn daughter because of objections to their same-sex marriage, and an Ohio woman who says she was fired as a teacher because she is a lesbian.
“We have to make new and different friends,” Gill said. “Ultimately a federal solution is better, but it always comes after the states have demonstrated the need.”