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Republicans Face Backlash Over Indiana, Arkansas 'Religious Freedom' Laws


Today Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson asked the state legislature to revise a bill it has passed - it has just passed yesterday. The bill is called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It and a similar piece of legislation in Indiana have drawn criticism nationally. Opponents say the laws allow companies and individuals to discriminate against gays and lesbians. These state laws are creating a political headache for the GOP and for the Republican presidential hopefuls in particular.

Joining us now to discuss the fallout is NPR's Mara Liasson. And Mara, we're going to hear more about the legal details elsewhere in the program, but what does today's news tell you about where the politics of this is headed?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, the governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, held a press conference today, and he talked all about stopping discrimination, supporting tolerance and diversity. It was the same with Mike Pence's remarks yesterday. He's the governor of Indiana - very little talk about religious liberty, which was supposed to be the issues that these conservative governors were championing with these laws. Instead, they're on the defensive. There's been a firestorm of controversy, huge backlash, talk of boycotts.

Asa Hutchinson even announced that his own son had signed a petition asking him to veto the bill, which he hasn't done. He sent it back to the legislature to see if there is some way - and many legal scholars doubt that there is - to pass a law that allows private businesses like florists and wedding cake makers and photographers to refuse to do business with gay couples but somehow not discriminate against them. And this just shows you the political fix that Republicans have gotten themselves into on this issue.

CORNISH: What about the prospective Republican candidates? How have they reacted to all of this?

LIASSON: Almost all the major Republican presidential candidates are supporting these laws. That's because the religious right is such an important part of the Republican primary electorate. But there's another important part of the Republican coalition, big business. And they have reacted against this very strongly. As Asa Hutchinson said today, these are not ordinary times. He might've said, the times they are a-changing, and the problem is that Republicans are having a hard time figuring out how to keep up.

The Supreme Court gave Republicans an out on gay marriage. They could now say I'm personally against it, but the Supreme Court has spoken. This issue is now off the table. But what's pulling them right back into the culture wars is legislation like this in states with conservative governors and big conservative majorities in the state legislature, and since 2014, there are a lot more states like that.

CORNISH: When people talk about the three legs of the Republican ideology, they talk about belief in small government and strong national defense. But of course, social issues - that was a big part of it, right? Is that changing?

LIASSON: Well, that's the question. Does the Republican Party's stance or tone on social issues have to change? And this controversy is a perfect example of a bigger, more fundamental problem for the GOP. There was a recent Pew pole that showed 61 percent of young Republicans favored gay marriage. You can't appeal to young voters if you're on the wrong side of gay marriage, and the same is true for immigration and climate change.

The problem is that the Republican Party's base is farther away from the center of the American public opinion than the Democratic base is, and this is a big problem for Republican presidential candidates.

CORNISH: Now, what do Republicans need to do now?

LIASSON: Well, they have to avoid getting into the trap that Mitt Romney did which is moving so far to the right to win the Republican primary - can't get back to the center in a general election. Jeb Bush had said the strategy is to run like you're willing to lose the primary in order to win the general, and that's a lot easier said than done. How do Republicans project an image of tolerance, which you need to win the White House, while at the same time satisfying their conservative base with laws that allow private businesses to refuse to serve gay people? The same thing is true for immigration. How do you show Hispanics you're welcoming if you think a path to legalization is amnesty? Now, maybe these are circles that can be squared by a talented candidate, but maybe they're not.

CORNISH: NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson - Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.