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The Republican Party, according to Jennifer Steinhauer of The New York Times, is "in the middle of an argument with itself. Efforts to discriminate against gay couples have laid bare and intensified longtime divisions in the party between social conservatives opposed to gay rights and the pro-business wing of the party that sees economic peril in the fight."

Charles Francis, founder of the Republican Unity Coalition during the George W. Bush administration, writes that the Republican Party "is a pro-business party with a gay exception, and that exception comes into play over and over again." He sees the need to "eliminate sexual orientation issues from the party's agenda."

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Something tells me that Republicans may have finally gotten the message.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act a couple of weeks ago which gave business owners in Indiana the cover to deny services to gays and lesbians if the provision of services would "substantially" burden their religious freedom. After days of protests, however, lawmakers in Indiana quickly passed legislation that would prohibit business owners from discriminating against gays and lesbians. It was a quick reversal.

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The uproar in Indiana set the stage for Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson to return a similar bill to the Arkansas House so that it could be revised to include similar anti-discrimination language. Last Thursday, the revised bills in Indiana and Arkansas were signed by Pence and Hutchinson.

Pence stated that the original bill had "become a subject of great misunderstanding." Misunderstanding or not, the lesson learned is that when enough businesses and citizens say no, politicians will retreat. Indeed, I think we've seen the end of gay discrimination bills from Republican politicians.

This original Indiana law was very different from current federal law or other state laws which protect businesses from being forced by the government to violate their religious beliefs by, for example, a church being forced to provide birth control on its health insurance plans when birth control is a violation of its faith. The original Indiana law allowed individual businesses to refuse services to individuals based upon a customer's sexual orientation. The amended Indiana and Arkansas laws now prohibit this form of discrimination.

We have been down this road before. In previous generations, businesses frequently refused to serve minorities, bi-racial couples or couples of different religious faiths.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce warned that the original law would not only keep many businesses away from Indiana, but send some of their current businesses packing. Sure enough, the nine largest companies in Indiana protested, threatened to leave or halt future investments in the state. Marriott Corporation stated that the law was "just pure idiocy from a business perspective."

The NCAA, based in Indianapolis and home of the men's and women's Final Four basketball tournaments, warned that the law would force them to move their tournaments. Tournament sponsors, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, threatened to pull their support.

Walmart Corporation, based in Arkansas, warned Hutchinson against signing a similar bill. Walmart stated that any bill that discriminated against gays and lesbians was against their "core basic belief of respect for the individual." When Walmart speaks, politicians in Arkansas listen.

The use of religion as a means to discriminate against gays and lesbians is in response to court rulings striking down anti-gay marriage laws. As stated by the The New York Times editorial board, "Religious-freedom laws, which were originally intended to protect religious minorities from burdensome laws or regulations, have become increasingly invoked by conservative Christian groups as gay rights in general — and marriage equality in particular — found greater acceptance nationally." But, the board goes on to say, religious freedom was not meant to "serve as a cover for discrimination in the public sphere. In the past, racial discrimination was also justified by religious beliefs, yet businesses may not refuse service to customers because of their race. Such behavior should be no more tolerable when it is based on sexual orientation."

Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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