Wary, Weary or Both, Southern Lawmakers Tone Down Culture Wars

Some state legislators want to see how the Supreme Court rules in a case involving a baker’s refusal to make a wedding cake for a gay couple before pressing ahead with bills on divisive social issues.

ATLANTA — With elections looming and major corporations watching, the social issues that have provoked bitter fights in recent years across the conservative South — including restroom access for transgender people and so-called religious freedom measures — are gaining little legislative momentum in statehouses this year.

Democratic and Republican officials, advocacy groups and researchers say that other, less contentious subjects are taking center stage, while fewer new hot-button social bills are being introduced and pending ones are languishing.

A combination of fear, fatigue and legislative mathematics appear to be behind the shift. Many people believe that states have grown wary of provoking a pronounced corporate backlash like the one North Carolina experienced in 2016. Others sense little appetite among lawmakers for another year of battles over divisive social issues, noting that few of the faces in the legislatures have changed since the previous conflagrations.

“I do think there’s a recognition that we’ve got some really big things to do,” said Greg Snowden, a Republican state representative in Mississippi who serves as speaker pro tempore. “You can’t go to war on everything all the time.”

Civil rights activists remain concerned, though, and see the waning of legislative activity on social issues as a temporary respite, not a lasting change in the political dynamics of the region. They say that troubling proposals could still surface this year, and that old proposals that died down could be fanned back to life in election campaigns this fall.

“There’s a lot of time, and I would be very derelict in my duty if I said I wasn’t worried,” said Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, which helped organize opposition to many proposals seen as harmful to gay and transgender people, among others. “We as advocates, but also our allies, will be very sorry if we take our eyes off the ball,” she said.

Even so, many pending bills that are of the greatest concern to gay and transgender rights activists are stalled or have effectively been defeated.

In South Carolina, for instance, a bill about restricting restroom access remains technically alive, but has been languishing in a committee for more than a year. And in Tennessee, a lawmaker withdrew his proposal to give state backing to school officials who impose restrictive bathroom policies, only eight days after he introduced it.

“I think people are tempering, and I think they’re thinking harder about what can be achieved, what needs to be achieved,” said Robin Fretwell Wilson, a law professor at the University of Illinois who has written extensively about the intersection of gay rights and religious freedom. “There’s been a slow IV drip of common sense to legislators, and you have lots and lots of people speaking to them and saying, ‘It’s not viable to do an extreme thing.’”

For generations, and especially in the 31 months since the United States Supreme Court recognized a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, the legislatures of the South have been a cultural battleground.

Mississippi passed, and has so far successfully defended in court, a law allowing people to use their religious beliefs to justify refusing to provide services to gay people. North Carolina was the setting for the legal and cultural clash over restrooms and discrimination protections that drew national attention. Last year, Alabama passed a law allowing faith-based adoption groups to refuse to work with same-sex couples and still keep their state licenses. And a candidate there who had publicly condemned gay people and tried to block same-sex marriages in the state nearly won election to the United States Senate.

On the other hand, Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia vetoed a bill that lawmakers passed in 2016 to shield religious groups from repercussions if they refused to employ or serve gay people. In Tennessee, two bills that reaffirm the state Constitution’s view that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that criticize the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage as “a lawless opinion with no basis in American law or history,” have sputtered.

And in Texas, where some of the country’s most contentious bills on gay and transgender rights have been brought up, the Legislature is not scheduled to meet at all in 2018. A “bathroom bill” failed twice there last year.

Observers on all sides say it is too early to know with certainty whether more contentious social legislation will eventually emerge this year. But the evidence so far suggests that the pace has slowed markedly.

Lawmakers, advocates and experts offer several explanations for this year’s apparent falloff. Washington figures prominently in some of them: Legislators are waiting to see what the Supreme Court decides in a major case involving a baker's refusal to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, some say. And many conservatives are said to be focused on pushing ahead at the federal rather than state level while Republicans control Congress and the White House.

There are also worries that lawmakers have been distracted for too long from practical issues like education and infrastructure. And some point to a creeping sense of rancor fatigue.

“After you have a bill come up two or three years in a row, or an issue, you sort of lose the fervor,” said Steven Dickerson, a Republican state senator in Tennessee.

Steven W. Long, a South Carolina Republican who sponsored the restroom bill that is mired in the Legislature there, said that he and people who share his views know they may not see swift action.

“It’s a war of attrition,” Mr. Long said. “Politics is a long-term kind of game. We’re not going to see the results that we want to see overnight. It’s taken us years to get where are, and it’s going to take years to get us where we want to be.”

One factor that seems to loom large is that, though the bills have often been popular with conservative voters, they go down very poorly with another important constituency: big business. Officials in states hoping to attract major investments from out-of-state corporations — like Amazon’s second headquarters — say they drew a lesson from the boycotts and cancellations that North Carolina suffered over its bathroom bill.

In Georgia, the House speaker told a radio station that any legislation that “creates headwinds” for economic development was unappealing. The governor’s chief of staff, addressing an event sponsored by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said he urged Republican candidates “to remember when they speak, those headlines go as quick and far as the C.E.O.’s desk.”

(Those pleas may not be heeded as the campaign for governor heats up: All the major Republican contenders have vowed to support a “religious freedom” proposal like the one Mr. Deal blocked, under significant corporate pressure, and some lawmakers have promised to stir debate in the Legislature this year, however limited it may ultimately be.)

The economic argument has particular resonance and urgency in the South, where a handful of cities are seen as leading finalists for the Amazon project, which the company has said will lead to 50,000 new jobs. Amazon did not respond to messages seeking comment.

In a recent speech near Georgia’s gold-topped Capitol, Mr. Deal seemed to signal that the state ought to set aside legislative proposals that might spook the Seattle-based company or try to read its mind: “We cannot waste valuable time, energy and effort, when what we should be doing is focusing on enhancing those issues which have already made us an attractive candidate to Amazon.”

Supporters of bills to permit faith-based exemptions from discrimination laws protecting gay people dismiss Mr. Deal’s arguments as convenient cover for a lame-duck governor. In Georgia and beyond, religious conservatives contend that they have not ceded any ground.

“Within our organizations and groups and constituencies, I think there’s still the same energy,” said Mathew D. Staver, the chairman of Liberty Counsel, which has litigated against same-sex marriage. “The battle is not just in the courts and in the legislatures; it’s also in the corporate world.”

Mr. Staver’s opponents make no apologies for the evolution of their strategy, which now relies heavily on the public pressure that large companies and corporate executives can bring to bear.

“I think Amazon is very much part of this conversation that’s happening with big business in the U.S.,” said Ms. Oakley of the Human Rights Campaign. Companies, she added, are “saying these bills are harmful to our ability to do business, to our employees, to the quality of life that we want our employees to be enjoying. With that voice, I think state legislatures have slowed down the momentum.”

To be sure, the turmoil created by these legislative efforts could resurface at any moment and throw a state legislature into sudden chaos.

“Things kind of ebb and flow sometimes, and most things can catch you by surprise,” Mr. Snowden, the Mississippi lawmaker, observed recently. “But right now, it seems to be a period of relative calm.”

Then he chuckled and added, “That’s today.”

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