Exile on Jones Street: Social conservatives facing the end times

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kirk rossby Kirk Ross

Not predicting there won’t be surprises, but it appears that the social-conservative convulsions of the North Carolina General Assembly have come to an end.

The esteemed body may experience occasional fevers and dry heaves, but has expelled almost all it had in store. The courts are now in the process of cleaning most of that up and, again just guessing, the contagious phase seems to have passed.

Sorry about the influenza/puke analogy, but it’s a subject that cries for vitriol. And no matter how hard one tries, there’s almost no way to match the rhetoric of the haters as they worked an agenda of prejudice, contempt and intolerance. Oh, and bad medicine.

Last week, as the legislature enjoyed its ceremonial commencing, came the announcement that one more bill, or sets of bills, aiming to codify beliefs and possibly more secular medical policies would be quickly introduced.

More about that in a second. First, a quick history lesson.

Prior to the GOP takeover in the election of 2010, there was considerable support in the legislature for stricter abortion rules, anti-immigrant laws, stronger death-penalty laws and a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Indeed, many of the bills filed by conservative firebrands would have likely passed had they come to a vote. But with the leadership of the legislature and the coalition that supported it at the ballot box more left-leaning on social issues, most of the bills pushing conservative social issues bills died in committee or were never taken up at all.

That created a tremendous amount of pent-up pressure for social-issue legislation. So in 2011, when a GOP coalition that owed its success in large part to social-conservative voters took control, well, things let loose.

But even as conservatives scored their biggest successes, there was evidence that their clout was waning. Much of what was passed had to be jammed through with little in the way of open debate, hearings and, as the courts have shown, objective legal scrutiny.

Nevertheless, last week, Skip Stam, the longtime legislative leader of the social-conservative movement, said to expect a big announcement on “religious freedom” legislation once the General Assembly gets back to work on Jan. 28.

That set off alarm bells among a number of constituencies. The most likely provision in the bill is an exemption for county clerks and other officials who want to do every last bit of their sworn duty except gay-marry people. Similar legislation has been proposed in other states. Other potential parts of such a bill could deal with healthcare providers and pharmacists with deeply held religious views on reproductive health services.

What the proponents of this legislation will want us to believe is that they are carving out exemptions and not starting us down a slippery slope where people in any business can ignore the law of the land and the rights of others.

This argument will come out of the same mouths proclaiming that allowing committed people of the same sex to marry and enjoy the same rights as others will lead to marrying livestock and/or the collapse of civilization into the flaming pit of hell.

If this were 2011 or 2012 some kind of religious-freedom legislation might sail through, but it’s not and despite the push, the future of this legislation and, possibly, other social issues is questionable.

The leadership this year is quite cognizant that the fight over social policy in those years took a tremendous amount of time and effort and hurt the Republican brand among women and its own libertarian-leaning wing.

Moore isn’t his predecessor, who needed to pass social-conservative issues to win a US Senate primary and keep the base fired up for the fall.

In a news conference a few hours after Stam’s promise of legislation, his new boss was not so enthusiastic about a social-issues agenda.

“If you look at the list of social issues we came in with in 2011, we’ve addressed most of those,” the speaker said. “We’re done.”

He quickly pivoted to talking about the imperative to govern and improve the economy. Even Berger, who last fall said he supported the idea of protections for religious objections, followed suit and talked about concentrating on improving the workings of government.

Your guess is as good as mine whether that means a religious-freedom bill is going to pass or not, but if you throw in the fact that last week the House changed its rules to make it harder to do the kind of legislative sleight of hand that was used to push the social agenda, the path to passage for anything major looks a whole lot tougher.