During Donald Trump’s campaign, he repeatedly cast himself as a supporter of L.G.B.T. rights. As president, however, he is being urged by fringe-right groups and raging extremists to sign a “religious liberty” executive order that would allow discrimination against gays, women and religious minorities.
As one Republican to another, I’d like to offer this bit of advice to President Trump: Don’t do it.
I wish it were as simple as pointing out that supporting discrimination against anyone is just a bad idea and that doing so in the name of religion is hypocritical as well. But just for good measure, I’ll offer a few more reasons.
The prospective executive order would authorize wide-ranging, taxpayer-funded discrimination against women, gays and members of minority faiths across federal programs and services. For example, a Social Security Administration employee could cite his religious beliefs to refuse benefits to the surviving spouse of a married same-sex couple.
The idea itself is extraordinarily unpopular. According to an August poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, 63 percent of Americans oppose these religious exemptions, and only 30 percent back them. The survey affirms what polling has found over the last several years: Americans are becoming more tolerant and inclusive, with support for equal rights continuing to grow. Sixty-two percent of Americans in the survey say they favor same-sex marriage, compared with 47 percent just five years ago.
But Mr. Trump, if you don’t trust the polls, then trust the people. When a White House draft of the executive order was leaked several weeks ago (yes, I know that’s painful), it unleashed a wave of negative news coverage and backlash from voters across the country. Most of them were plain dumbfounded, wondering why a president who just days before had crowned himself a steadfast supporter of the L.G.B.T. community would even consider signing an executive order that would license discrimination.
Even faith leaders (400 of them) sent you a letter last month urging you not to further pursue this executive order, reasoning that, because religion is already fully protected under the law, this would then amount to something even worse: taxpayer-funded discrimination.
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So, you say you aren’t afraid of political consequences, and you don’t care what other people think? Well, will you at least consider the rest of your Republican Party? You ran on its ticket.
This executive order would be a political tinderbox that could explode in the faces of Republicans everywhere, reinforcing negative stereotypes about the party’s dislike of L.G.B.T. Americans, women, and religious and ethnic minorities. It reignites a feckless debate that time and time again has forced Republicans to retreat, as we’ve seen with North Carolina’s bathroom bill, the Arizona bill that would have let businesses refuse to serve gay customers and Indiana’s similar “religious freedom” law. Vice President Mike Pence might consider telling you about the last of these because he spearheaded the effort as governor. It was quite a doozy.
If you still aren’t concerned about dragging the entire party into another swamp of political quicksand, then let’s focus on what you do care about: the art of the deal.
What would you get out of signing this executive order? You would placate a vocal minority that includes some certified hate groups and far-right activists who are truly out of step with most Americans and many Republicans across the country. What would the other side get — or in other words, what gifts will you be handing to Democrats and others on a silver platter? A great cause, new supporters, new energy and money, the mother’s milk of politics.
Aside from being plain cruel and ugly, permitting discrimination against L.G.B.T. Americans in the name of religion would fuel the progressive Democratic base, which devours these morsels of archaic predisposition and then expertly seizes on them — and the big bucks it raises would most likely be used to take you to court.
That brings us to the judiciary. It’s been a thorn in your side, I know. But based on decisions from around the country, the judiciary is just not buying the pitch that these exemptions have anything to do with “religious freedom.” Rather, it has ruled that these religious exemptions are discriminatory, plain and simple. Maybe those around you don’t care what the courts think, but wouldn’t it stick in your craw to have another embarrassing rebuke of your policies, another executive order stopped dead in its tracks?
I would respectfully suggest that you expend your time and energy on other issues — the solvency of Social Security, the cost of health care, humane immigration reform, building infrastructure and educating kids to succeed — that Republicans could leverage for broad support and for more praise for you and the party as it creeps closer to the midterm elections in 2018.
Please consider this a little helpful advice, offered from one maverick Republican to another.
Alan K. Simpson, a former co-chairman of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, was a Republican senator from Wyoming from 1979 to 1997.