National Review Goes All In For Anti-Gay Discrimination

National Review has established itself as a staunch proponent of allowing business owners refuse service to gay and lesbian customers. It's a position that unfortunately aligns with National Review's record of attacking defending discrimination against marginalized groups, including its shameful opposition to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950's.

For months, National Review's staff has worked to invent bogus justifications for anti-gay business discrimination, condemning non-discrimination efforts as a form of government overreach. Long before states like Kansas and Arizona sought to pass laws allowing business to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers, National Review was championing business owners who had been sued for engaging in anti-gay discrimination.

In August, after the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled unanimously that photographer Elaine Huguenin violated the state's Human Rights Act by refusing to photograph a same-sex couple's commitment ceremony, National Review joined other right-wing media outlets in their howls of outrage. At National Review Online, NRO contributor and Heritage Foundation fellow Ryan T. Anderson blasted the ruling as a sign that social conservatives had been “driven to the margins of culture,” with “religious believers” and “the truth about marriage” under judicial assault.

NRO also took up the mantle of Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who refused to bake a cake for a same-sex couple. In a one-sided interview published under the headline “Let Him Bake Cake in Freedom,” NRO editor-at-large Kathryn Jean Lopez framed Phillips, whom a state judge ruled had violated Colorado's anti-discrimination law, as a victim of anti-Christian persecution. Lopez wondered what the “future of freedom” looked like in a world where businesses couldn't turn away LGBT customers.

Given its support for anti-gay businesses, it was unsurprising that National Review cheered the introduction of several state license-to-discriminate bills this winter.

After USA Today columnist and Fox News contributor Kirsten Powers penned a column denouncing Kansas' bill as an example of “homosexual Jim Crow laws,” Anderson took to NRO to defend anti-gay business practices as protected under “freedom of association and freedom of contract.” Anderson saw “religious liberty and the rights of conscience,” not the rights and dignity of LGBT customers, at stake. 

As national attention turned toward Arizona following the demise of the Kansas bill, support for anti-gay segregation measures became National Review's official editorial position. Following the Arizona legislature's passage of S.B. 1062 - which would have protected businesses from being sued for anti-gay discrimination - the National Review's editors published a February 24 editorial urging Republican Gov. Jan Brewer to sign the measure. The “necessary” bill, the editors wrote, simply affirmed the ethos of “live-and-let live.”

The “potentially dangerous” implications of bills like S.B. 1062 were enough to cause even Fox News - with some notable exceptions - to backtrack on its baseless religious liberty crusade. 

But National Review was undeterred. When Brewer vetoed the bill on February 26, National Review editor Rich Lowry condemned her decision. Brewer's veto, Lowry wrote on Twitter, “shows that poorly informed hysteria works.” Lowry expanded on his thoughts in a column for Politico Magazine, describing Brewer's veto as “foolish” and insisting that a noble effort to protect religious liberty had been torpedoed by malicious liberals. Non-discrimination, Lowry charged, was all about getting conservatives to go along with “the program.”

And nearly two weeks after Brewer vetoed S.B. 1062, National Review still can't let it go. In an article for the March 24 edition of the magazine, senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru offered a full-throated - if occasionally confused - defense of the bill. Ponnuru couldn't see what was so anti-gay about a measure that he acknowledged was inspired by cases like the anti-gay New Mexico photographer's. And in a flagrant distortion of the bill, Ponnuru claimed it wouldn't necessarily authorize refusal of service to gay couples, even as he took Republican opponents of the bill to task for apparently “believ[ing] that a baker should have to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding” (emphasis added):

Political journalists tend to accept social liberals' framing of issues, their terminology, and their claims, and to believe the worst about social conservatives. In the Arizona debate, these tendencies manifested in widespread reports that the bill authorized businesses to refuse to serve gay people who wanted to be their customers and in the labeling of the legislation as “anti-gay.”

Headlines in the New York Times, the Washington PostUSA Today, and many other outlets either used that label or repeated that claim. In their limited defense, the proximate reason for the legislation does have to do with homosexuality: Conservatives were concerned that without the law, business owners who object to same-sex marriage might be forced to take actions they regard as participating in, facilitating, or condoning it. They were moved by cases such as one in neighboring New Mexico, where a wedding photographer was punished for refusing to serve a same-sex commitment ceremony.

The legislation itself, however, did not mention gays, homosexuality, or same-sex marriage, and largely tracked the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA): a law that was enacted by large bipartisan majorities that included many liberals and was signed by President Clinton in 1993. It would not have authorized business owners to turn away gay customers -- which, by the way, is something Arizona law already allows but that businesses have not been eager to do. It would not even have authorized bakers to refuse to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, which is a scenario both sides of the debate often mentioned. It would have given those bakers a claim in court but not guaranteed their success with it.


Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Jeff Flake -- both of Arizona's Republican senators and both of the last two Republican presidential nominees -- urged Governor Brewer to veto the bill.Maybe they believed the media's description of that bill, although one might expect Republicans who have run for president to have some sensitivity to bias. Even some of the legislators who voted for the bill counseled a veto, saying they had not understood what they had approved. (Perhaps they had not understood how controversial it would be.) Perhaps they thought that there was no need to approve controversial legislation until Arizona actually had a case like the one in New Mexico.

If Romney, McCain, and Flake truly believe that a baker should have to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, even if he considers doing so participation in and endorsement of something he thinks wrong, then they have taken a decidedly odd position.

National Review's defense of anti-gay business discrimination echoes the publication's reputation for standing in the way of efforts to protect historically marginalized groups. National Review famously opposed the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950's, with the publication's founder, William F. Buckley, making a number of appallingly racist remarks.

National Review's arguments against federal intervention in the Jim Crow South, which were couched in terms of “limited government,” are eerily similar to the sentiments that now motivate its defense of anti-gay discrimination.

National Review's stated mission is to "stand athwart history, yelling Stop." It's a romantic notion, but it did major damage to National Review's reputation once it became clear that the publication was “standing” on the wrong side of the Civil Rights Movement. National Review may feel comfortable lauding “homosexual Jim Crow laws” now, but its work may not be viewed through such a noble lens once history decides to leave anti-gay discrimination, and its committed defenders, behind. 

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