Bobby Jindal’s Utterly Pointless ‘Religious Liberty’ Campaign Stunt
Last month, just as we were coming off several weeks of controversy regarding Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act which ultimately resulted in the legislature passing a revision to the law making clear that it could not be used as a defense against claims of discrimination in providing services, a similar bill was introduced in the legislature in Louisiana. This bill was similar to the Indiana law in many respects, but actually went further in that it appeared to authorize such things as employers refusing to provide spousal benefits to employees in an otherwise legal same-sex marriage. At the time, I anticipated that we would see national attention focused on Baton Rouge similar to what we saw in Indiana. As it turned out, that never actually materialized and, despite the fact that the state legislature is controlled by the GOP and the measure was endorsed by Governor Bobby Jindal, the measure failed to make it out of committee earlier this week. Despite this defeat, Governor Jindal, who earlier this week formed an exploratory committee and seems likely to seek the Republican Presidential nomination, issued an executive order that purports to put the majority of the bill into effect notwithstanding the fact that it was rejected by the legislature:
NEW ORLEANS — Hours after a committee in the Louisiana Legislature effectively voted down a bill that would explicitly protect people and businesses that do not want to participate in same-sex marriage, Gov.Bobby Jindal issued an executive order on Tuesday to accomplish much of what the bill had set out to do.
“We don’t support discrimination in Louisiana and we do support religious liberty,” the governor said in a statement. “These two values can be upheld at the same time.”
Critics, including liberals and even some conservatives, as well influential business leaders, were sharply critical of the governor’s position, dismissing it as an attempt to court conservatives nationally in advance of his likely presidential run.
“It’s a cynical attempt to deflect from the failures of what should be the top legislative priority, what we’re dealing with every day, which is a broken state budget,” State Senator Karen Carter Peterson, a Democrat, said in a speech on the floor Tuesday afternoon. She noted that Mr. Jindal has been appearing in an ad in Iowa in which he discusses his views on religious liberty. The governor announced the formation of an exploratory committee for a 2016 presidential run earlier in the week.
The Legislature’s bill, the Marriage and Conscience Protection Act, would prevent the state “from taking any adverse action against a person on the basis that such person acted in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction about marriage.” It was sponsored by Mike Johnson, a freshman representative.
Under the law, state agencies could not deny charitable tax status, licenses or other benefits to entities that refuse on religious grounds to participate in same sex-marriage. It is more targeted — specifically focusing on same-sex marriage — than laws cast as protecting religion that have led to uproars in states such as Indiana and Arkansas. Louisiana already has such an act.
After discussing the bill and hearing from supporters and opponents earlier on Tuesday, the House Civil Law and Procedure committee voted 10 to 2 across party lines to return it to the calendar, more or less killing it for the current session. Legislators in Texas failed to act on a similar bill last week, reflecting the degree to which business interests have come to see the bills as projecting an image of intolerance that is bad for a state’s business climate. That is a particular issue with the tourism industry in Louisiana.
Mr. Jindal’s order, which went into effect immediately and will remain in effect until 60 days after the next legislative session, was issued shortly after the legislators shelved the measure.
In a statement, Mr. Johnson said the governor’s order “will go a long way to preserve the most fundamental freedom of all Louisianians, which is our religious liberty.
The executive order means the 20 agencies that fall under the executive branch, including the Department of Revenue, Department of Insurance, Department of Transportation and Development and Department of Health and Hospitals, must abide by the rules set forth in it. Jindal spokeswoman Shannon Bates Dirmann said the executive order does not have the power to force local municipal or parish governments to enforce the executive order.
In addition to codifying the intent of Johnson’s bill, the order also incorporates the state’s 2010-passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act and last year’s Hobby Lobby ruling from the Supreme Court of the United States. The latter ruling found corporations can be treated by the law as a person, and that companies with religious owners cannot be forced to pay for insurance coverage for contraception.
Jindal reiterated Tuesday evening that the bill — and the executive order — are “not about discrimination…(It’s) about the protection of our First Amendment rights.”
One ironic thing about Jindal’s action here, of course, is that he is essentially doing the same thing that Republicans in Congress have condemned the President for, using his executive power to advance policy even when it is specifically rejected by the legislature. President Obama has done that on several instances on issues ranging from immigration to gay rights, and he has generally been declared a “lawless President” for doing so even when it seems fairly clear that he was acting well within either the powers granted under Article II of the Constitution or the discretion that has been granted to the Executive Branch in specific legislation passed by Congress. I’m not familiar enough to know whether or not what Jindal has done her is authorized under the law or not, but if it is then it just makes the point even better. In this case, Jindal took a measure that was specifically rejected by the legislature and, at least in some respects, enacted it into law. The order he signed has no impact on private transactions, and it doesn’t apply to government entities outside the agencies that fall under the Governor’s authority, but the analogy is clear. Bobby Jindal has done the exact same thing Republicans have condemned President Obama for doing, but he’s likely to get praised by many conservatives for doing it.
It’s unclear what practical effect Jindal’s order will actually have, or even if he actually has the legal authority to do something that essentially amounts to enacting a law that the legislature has rejected, but it seems rather obvious this has little to do with the law, or even the state of Louisiana, and everything to do with trying to breath some life into a a Jindal campaign that seems dead in the water before it even begins. As I noted early this week, Jindal stands at or near the bottom of the polls in the Republican race nationally and in all of the early primary states, but it’s the fact that he’s a virtual nonentity in Iowa that would seem to be the biggest problem for him. Unless he can find a way to raise his profile in the Hawkeye State, it seems fairly clear that Jindal’s campaign will go absolutely nowhere. Toward that end, he has to find a way to convince evangelicals and socially conservative voters in the state to give him a look notwithstanding all of his well-known negatives, and taking a step like this likely seems to him and his advisers to be an easy way to do that. The fact that it may not actually amount to anything as far as Louisiana law is concerned, or that it may in fact not even be legal, isn’t really relevant in this type of calculus because all that matters is pandering to the right people in Iowa.
Aside from the original bill’s sponsor and a few others, the reaction to Jindal’s action here seems to be overwhelmingly negative across the board. Rod Dreher, for example, who opposes same-sex marriage and has written extensively in support of these sorts of “religious freedom” bills is quite critical of Jindal’s action:
This has nothing to do with protecting religious liberty in Louisiana, and everything to do with trying to defibrillate Jindal’s moribund presidential prospects by getting a rise out of Evangelical primary voters.
Here’s why this is complicated. Is it the case that business interests cowed Republicans, who control the state legislature, from voting for this? Sure, absolutely. I’d say it’s not only possible, it’s likely. But here’s the thing: social conservatives, which includes most of the state legislature, are operating from a very weak position on this issue.
The legislature is trying to figure out how to deal with a near-catastrophic hole in the state budget, one that has become much worse over the years because of Gov. Jindal’s refusal to deal straightforwardly with it. Instead, Jindal relied on short-term gimmicks that allowed him to stay on Grover Norquist’s good side, and therefore keep his dream of being the GOP presidential nominee alive.
Ours is a very conservative state, and people don’t want gay marriage here, at least not at the present moment. I am certain that religious liberty is a concern, or would be if you asked voters. But the GOP-led legislature kicking that particular ball down the road is prudent at the present moment, for two reasons:
1) All legislation of this sort should be put on hold pending the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling next month. That will clarify matters.
2) The state’s fiscal problems are so overwhelming, and so consequential to the everyday lives of Louisianians, that we can’t afford to do anything right now to take the focus off of sorting the budget out and improving the economy. Gay marriage vs. religious liberty is not a fight we need in Louisiana, especially when there haven’t been any real challenges to it.
Why, exactly, should the Louisiana legislature, swamped by the budget disaster, invite a sh*tstorm right now for the sake of boosting Bobby Jindal’s flailing presidential primary prospects?
Of course, as Louisiana political blogger Kevin Boyd notes, Jindal has spent a lot of time paying more attention to Iowa than his home state in recent years:
Since Jindal did virtually nothing to help pass Johnson’s bill, who is the target audience for this executive order? If you guessed social conservatives in Iowa, you’re absolutely right. It coincides with a new ad Jindal is running in that state in order to jump start his soon to be presidential campaign.
All throughout Jindal’s two terms, but especially in his second term, he has been more concerned with his national image than actual results here in Louisiana. Since the passing of education reform at the beginning of his second term, Jindal has done nothing to make Louisiana politics more friendly for conservatives than he found it. It is fitting that the end of Jindal’s reign finds him serving as the tax collector for the Huey Long, Edwin Edwards welfare state and resorting to red meat demagoguery to pander to social conservatives.
The fact that this latest move has more to do with Iowa than Louisiana is made even more apparent that it coincided with the release of a new ad from a pro-Jindal advocacy group that will apparently be running in the Hawkeye State in the coming weeks and months:
The ad, which was previewed for some news outlets including BuzzFeed News, features Jindal rhapsodizing — in his signature rapid-fire twang — about the sacred need to protect religious believers’ “freedom of conscience,” which he argues “must, in no way, ever be linked to the ever-changing opinions of the public.” It concludes with a line that has become a mainstay of his recent speeches and interviews: “The United States of America did not create religious liberty. Religious liberty created the United States of America.”
In keeping with what is bound to be a relatively low-budget, scrappy campaign operation at the outset, Jindal’s ad doesn’t have much money behind it. According to an operative at The American Future Project — the pro-Jindal advocacy group launching the ad — the commercial is debuting in Iowa with a “five-figure ad buy,” meaning the organization spent somewhere between $10,000 and $99,000 to get it on the air. It will appear on cable and online and it will run for one week, according to the group.
But the ad’s focus highlights a key plank in the Jindal camp’s strategy to propel the conservative governor — currently polling in the low single digits — to the top tier of the Republican field. If Jindal can “own” the issue of religious freedom, his aides say, they believe he can build enough grassroots momentum among conservative Christians to break out in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses next year.
“The issue is very topical right now and I suspect it will be for quite some time,” said one senior Jindal adviser, adding, “I think he understands this issue far beyond just the standard talking points.”
This isn’t the first time that Jindal has put himself out in front on a so-called “religious liberty” issue. When Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the family featured in Discovery Channel’s Duck Dynasty came under fire in 2013 for remarks he made about homosexuality and other topics, Jindal was perhaps the most vocal defender of what Robertson said. On several occasions during the month or so that the matter was in the news, Jindal argued that Reobertson was being attacked for his religious beliefs by a culture of “political correctness.” After that controversy faded, the Governor became one of the most prominent voices on the right to speak about cases involving business owners who were charged with violations of generally applicable anti-discrimination laws because they refused to provide services to same-sex weddings or wedding receptions. Most recently, Jindal penned an Op-Ed in The New York Times during the time of the Indiana controversy in which he argued that his opposition to same-sex marriage was rooted in the need to protect religious liberty, citing several of the examples of such vendors that have been in the news over the past several years. Clearly, then, Jindal has been spending quite a considerable amount of time trying to make this issue his own. The fact that, despite all of that, he is still absolutely nowhere in the polls suggests that this latest effort at pandering isn’t going to help him very much either.