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“Pity the poor Christian photographer” is a tactic

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As I mentioned earlier, my views on the general approach embodied in RFRAs to protecting religious freedom as a general matter are complicated and conflicted, but my views on the political dynamic at work in the current push for them are not. Another reminder, via Dan Savage, comes this morning from Springfield, Missouri, where an effort to roll back civil rights and social equality for LGBT residents was, depressingly, successful:

Voters have narrowly repealed an LGBT-rights law in Springfield, Missouri, according to ballot results Tuesday night.

With all precincts reporting, the Greene County Clerk shows Question 1 passing 51.43% to 48.57%.

“We are very disappointed that we didn’t have the exact outcome that we wanted, but we are encouraged that the vote was so very close,” Crystal Clinkenbeard, a spokeswoman for the LGBT-rights campaign No Repeal, told BuzzFeed News.

The vote comes after a fierce clash between LGBT advocates and religious conservatives, who invoked campaign themes of Christian-owned businesses forced to sell products for gay weddings and cross-dressing predators lurking in women’s restrooms.

Whether one is personally sympathetic or not, it’s hard to deny that the image of the hard-working independent baker/florist/photographer, portrayed as perfectly decent to gay customers most of the time but bound to avoid participation in a same sex wedding ceremony not by animus but by deep personal religious conviction, is probably the most broadly sympathetic face those opposed to civil and social equality of LGBT people can construct for their movement. (And they need it: when the question is posed abstractly, the American public is much less conflicted about anti-discrimination protections than they are about same sex marriage.) But of course what happened in Springfield yesterday was not the carving out of a narrow exception–the citizenry not only overturned protection against discrimination in all public accommodations, they overturned it in housing and employment as well.

When we treat the current debate as being about whether we should carve out a very narrow, specific in anti-discrimination in public accommodations laws, we fall for a trap in two ways. First, because such a framing contributes to the widely held but false impression that anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people are widespread (for example: all the bad coverage of the Indiana law telling us it would “allow” what was already perfectly legal). Second, because for a significant number of the people pushing the ‘pity the poor photographer’ narrative, the photographer is little more than a wedge; a means to an end; an appealing and pitiable image designed to disguise a far uglier and less pitiable cause. This is a close cousin of the previous decade’s successful efforts to use the specter of Churches forced to solemnize same sex marriages to persuade voters to not only constitutionalize existing bans on same sex marriage, but also any legal recognition or protection whatsoever for their relationships and families.

As Dan Savage also notes, the short-term victories produced by the decision to maximally oppose any and all rights and protections for LGBT people, while occasionally still successful, comes at a very real cost in the long term:

When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers. (The next most common negative images? : “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too involved in politics.”)

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