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The Log Cabin Republicans' Uncertain Future

The Log Cabin Republicans' Uncertain Future

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The Log Cabin Republicans strive for legitimacy within a party that worked tirelessly against marriage equality. Can they replicate past successes battling "religious freedom" in red states?

A mention of Log Cabin Republicans in some queer quarters will elicit a response similar to the invocation of Jews for Jesus or Uncle Tom: a derisive snort. Or worse.

LCR celebrated nationwide marriage equality with the rest of the LGBT community, after having worked hard to bring it about. But the party to which it pledges allegiance has pitched a rearguard action against marriage for years, surrendering no ditch without a skirmish.

The GOP and the greater conservative movement sometimes seem to want little to do with LCR. To wit: While some GOP presidential contenders have met with LCR, they all condemned the United States Supreme Court's marriage equality decision in June, some in floridly apocalyptic terms; most immediately seized the banner of the next battle, "religious freedom." LCR finally attended the GOP national convention as a recognized group in 2012, yet anti-LGBT rhetoric peppered the party's platform, and LCR was still denied full inclusion at the influential Conservative Political Action Conference, settling this year for participation in a single panel with no booth on the floor. LCR was disinvited from June's Western Conservative Summit, its $250 deposit returned. And last year, the Texas GOP denied LCR's chapter a booth at the annual convention, citing an obscure rule that Texas LCR chairman Jeff Davis says is routinely overlooked for others.

Yet LCR soldiers on for both LGBT rights and Republicanism, seemingly immune to the humiliation of such rejection. With marriage equality legally settled, and with the ban on transgender participation in the military on a path similar to that of "don't ask, don't tell," one main issue confronting LGBT political campaigners, including LCR, is whether they can successfully head off or defeat "religious freedom restoration acts" (RFRAs) coming out of red-state legislatures and statehouses.

LCR has scored victories in the past. The group was founded in California to combat the ultimately unsuccessful 1978 Briggs Initiative, which would have barred gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools. The organization helped quash the Federal Marriage Amendment, introduced in Congress in 2004 and endorsed by President George W. Bush. And in 2010, a California federal judge ruled DADT unconstitutional in a lawsuit filed by LCR; many political watchers credit that victory with paving a path to DADT's repeal.

But can LCR replicate its political successes against RFRAs? And does it want to?

The establishment of such RFRA policies is unlikely at the federal level, or in blue states like California. The assault will come from the South and the Midwest -- and what LCR can do there is unclear. One problem is the absence of chapters in critical GOP-leaning states, including Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana, Idaho, Montana, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Kansas. LCR's Alabama chapter shut down sometime after 2010, the year of the last entry on its Facebook page.

Nevertheless non-Republican advocates in conservative states with LCR chapters view the organization as a valuable ally.

"Within the Texas legislature, they are an incredibly effective voice," says Equality Texas's Daniel Williams. He credits LCR with helping head off certain anti-LGBT bills in the latest legislative session.

Equality Utah executive director Troy Williams (no relation) says that "LCR have been instrumental in establishing relationships with both Governor Gary Herbert and his predecessor Jon Huntsman."

LCR is "going to be important to move the needle," says Equality North Carolina executive director Chris Sgro. But the extent to which local chapters depend on the national organization's health is uncertain.

Jimmy LaSalvia founded the now-defunct Kentucky LCR chapter in 2004, later served at the national level, and ultimately left LCR to found GOProud, a since-disbanded Republican LGBT group. LaSalvia quit the GOP last year. His book, No Hope: Why I Left the GOP (and You Should Too), comes out in October.

LaSalvia claims LCR is "hanging by a thread," that the national office once had seven employees but is now down to executive director Gregory T. Angelo and an intern, and that membership has fallen since around 2004, which he calls the group's "heyday."

Politics_lcr_x633LCR executive director Gregory Angelo with DC chapter members

Angelo disputes all this, responding in an email that since he took over in 2013, "our rolls have grown, donations have increased, and our finances are in the best shape they've been in nearly a decade." Contrary information is "pure speculation," he writes. LCR membership numbers cannot be verified; Angelo did not respond to a request to describe "a standard by which you determine if someone is a 'member,' " citing only the "well over 40,000 people in our database."

Jeff Davis says there are dues-paying members of Texas city chapters, as opposed to names on mailing lists, but he could supply numbers only for Austin, where there are 10 such members.

Just how RFRAs might manifest legislatively, and how willing LCR will be to fight certain types of measures, will also matter.

Robin Fretwell Wilson, director of the University of Illinois College of Law's Family Law and Policy Program, who favors balancing religious and LGBT interests, says that she expects no explosion of RFRAs, opining that conservatives have learned from the Indiana debacle, in which a RFRA was passed but quickly modified after the threat of significant business-interest boycotts against the state.

Out former GOP presidential hopeful Fred Karger disagrees with Wilson, saying that he expects new RFRAs, pointing to "groups like the National Organization for Marriage [and] Family Research Council that depend on fighting the LGBT community" for any semblance of relevance. Likewise, Daniel Williams expects new anti-LGBT bills in Texas.

Those who've fought against marriage equality and LGBT rights for decades are not going to simply wither away in the face of shifting public opinion or legal parity for LGBTs. While the exact contours of the "religious freedom" movement remain hazy, it seems certain there will be such a movement, and that it will occupy legislatures and courts for years.

LCR's opposition to laws permitting government officials to opt out of their duties seems solid. "This notion that clerks, public servants, should be able to deny marriage licenses specifically to same-sex couples is beyond the pale," Angelo says.

But things get murkier for private businesses refusing to "participate" in same-sex weddings. Angelo warns against getting "bogged down in making the post-marriage-equality battle one of a fight against mom-and-pop businesses," referring to "these ridiculous battles involving bake my cake, photograph my wedding."

LCR "would support reasonable religious accommodations in non-discrimination laws," Angelo says, and he believes small-business exemptions already exist at the federal level. But, according to Lambda Legal's Jenny Pizer, Angelo is probably confusing employment protections, which include certain such exemptions, with public accommodations statutes, which do not.

Asked why a business shouldn't be able to refuse to bake a cake for, say, a black couple, Angelo describes "a delineation...between refusing service for an event and refusing service to someone simply because of who they are."

This position places LCR pretty squarely at odds with most LGBT advocates, and it might limit LCR's value in the "religious freedom" struggle.

Going forward, Angelo says, "there's a lot more to be done in a post-marriage world, including passage of everything from LGBT civil rights legislation to tax code reform to working to combat human rights abuses against the LGBT community abroad. Also, as long as there are gay Democrats, there will always be Log Cabin Republicans."

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