Jeb Bush, Chris Christie Shoot for More Ambiguous RFRA Stance

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 01: Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (C) listens to opening statements while testifying before the House Budget Committee in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill June 1, 2012 in Washington, DC. The committee members engaged in a wide-ranging debate about tax and spending policy during the hearing titiled,
Jeb Bush listens to opening statements while testifying before the House Budget Committee on June 1, 2012. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/2012 Getty Images

In an attempt to beat his more conservative rivals to the punch, on Monday Jeb Bush became the first Republican 2016 contender to throw his unequivocal support behind Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act. “I think Governor [Mike] Pence has done the right thing,” Bush told radio host Hugh Hewitt. “This is simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs, to have, to be able to be people of conscience. I just think once the facts are established, people aren’t going to see this as discriminatory at all.” Thanks in part to Bush, almost every other potential GOP candidate quickly voiced their unwavering support for the law.

But two days later, with Pence retreating and Bush set to appear at a Silicon Valley fund-raiser, it seems he suddenly wished he’d given a more ambiguous answer. “By the end of the week, I think Indiana will be in the right place, which is to say that we need in a big diverse country like America, we need to have space for people to act on their conscience, that it is a constitutional right that religious freedom is a core value of our country,” Bush said, according to the New York Times.

The former Florida governor went on to say that “we shouldn’t discriminate based on sexual orientation,” but he thinks allowing a wedding vendor to refuse to participate in a gay wedding “is not discrimination; it is I think protecting the first amendment right.” He offered examples of how the law should apply in two flower-shop scenarios. Per Business Insider:

I do think if you’re a florist and you don’t want to participate in the arrangement of a wedding, you shouldn’t have to be obliged to do that if it goes against your faith because you believe in traditional marriage. Likewise if someone walked into a flower shop as a gay couple and said I want to buy all these off the rack, these flowers, they should have every right to do it. That would be discrimination.

It’s unclear how the law would distinguish between prearranged flowers and those made to order, but Bush said there’s already a better law on the books:

Utah went about this, but what they did is they brought all the constituencies together and this included the leadership of the LDS Church and LBGT [sic] community and said, ‘How can we forge a consensus where we can protect religious freedom and also create an environment where we’re not discriminating against people?’ And they figured it out and they passed a law … There wasn’t a bunch of yelling and screaming.

So Bush supports religious-freedom laws, opposes some forms of anti-gay discrimination, and disagrees with how Pence handled the situation? Not quite. “The better approach would have been the approach that is the more consensus-oriented approach I think,” Bush said. “I’m not being critical of Mike Pence, because I did say that I supported his efforts.”

Following Bush’s attempt to elaborate his thoughts on the issue, at least one fund-raiser attendee was confused. “I don’t know what Jeb feels,” venture capitalist Bill Draper told the Times. He said he supports Bush, but it was a tough crowd for a conservative. “In Silicon Valley, we are very liberal on the issues of gays and women’s rights, and we’re all sensitive to the apparent wording of the law,” Draper said.

Meanwhile, Chris Christie achieved the same outcome using a different strategy. “To the extent that something needs to be fixed to clarify that nobody will be denied service for discriminatory reasons, I’m sure that’s exactly what Mike will do,” the New Jersey governor said, vaguely, on Wednesday afternoon in his first remarks on the matter. He added that there shouldn’t be a situation “where people perceive that anybody will be denied service,” and the rest of his comments focused on praising Pence’s character:

I can tell you this, I know Mike Pence, and he’s got nothing but love in his heart for people and I just do not believe that in any way Mike Pence would intend for anything that happen in his state on his watch to be discriminatory towards any person. … And so, my guess is that he’ll fix the problem and move on. Because that’s the kind of guy he is. I will tell you, amongst the governors, there is nobody that I’ve met amongst the governors who is more sincere in his faith and in his love for people than Mike Pence.

That doesn’t shed much light on where Christie thinks we should draw the line on religious freedom. But he did manage to make it clear that he doesn’t want to start a feud with Pence or say anything that he’ll see on a protester’s sign for the next 20 months. And to be fair to Christie, it’s impressive that he said anything, given his history of dodging questions on thorny issues. This time the usually loquacious Rand Paul has taken that route. The Kentucky senator is now the only likely Republican candidate who’s said nothing on the RFRA issue. 

Bush, Christie Go for More Ambiguous RFRA Stance