NEW YORK — For the combatants in America’s long-running culture wars, the triumph of Donald Trump and congressional Republicans was stunning – sparking elation on one side, deep dismay on the other.
Advocates of LGBT rights and abortion rights now fear setbacks instead of further gains. But the outcome emboldened the anti-abortion movement and breathed new life into the religious right’s campaign for broad exemptions from same-sex marriage and other laws.
Kelly Shackelford, head of First Liberty Institute, a legal group that specializes in religious freedom cases, said that, for his cause, the environment will transform from “brutal” under the Obama administration to friendly given GOP control of both Congress and the White House. His clients include two Christian bakers in Oregon who were fined for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.
“Many of us who fight for religious freedom have felt in the last four or even eight years there was a lot of overreaching that was wrong,” said Shackelford, who was among hundreds of religious conservatives who met with Trump last June. “To have someone who is president-elect, who says I’m going to put an end to this … we’re going to go back to a country built on religious freedom. That makes us very hopeful.”
Among the election’s repercussions will be a renewed campaign, in state legislatures and in Congress, to pass tough anti-abortion legislation. Religious conservatives will press for far-reaching conscience protections and a repeal of regulations they said violated their religious liberty. And the push to let transgender students use the bathroom of their choice at school, strongly backed by President Barack Obama, may wither in the face of GOP resistance.
“There’s no question a lot of transgender students and their parents woke up Wednesday morning really scared,” said Sarah McBride, a 26-year-old transgender activist who is national press secretary for the LGBT-rights group the Human Rights Campaign. “I’m feeling the way a lot of folks are feeling – worried that the heart of this country isn’t big enough to love us, too.”
McBride in July became the first openly transgender person to address a national political convention when she spoke to the Democrats’ gathering in Philadelphia.
Comparable worries surfaced among abortion-rights supporters.
“My colleagues across the country are deeply disheartened,” said Dr. Willie Parker, an Alabama-based physician who provides abortions in three Southern states. He predicts intensified efforts to lay the groundwork for a challenge of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision establishing a nationwide right to abortion.
“We’re disappointed, but not defeated,” said Parker. “Like the civil rights movement, we’re in it for the long haul.”
Anti-abortion leaders initially were wary of Trump, who in the past had supported abortion rights. They rallied behind him – and launched a massive door-knocking campaign in several battleground states – after he pledged to support several of their key goals. These include defunding of Planned Parenthood, a ban on most late-term abortions, and the appointment of Supreme Court justices who might weaken or reverse Roe v. Wade.
Marjorie Dannensfelser, leader of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, hailed the GOP sweep as “an historic moment for the pro-life movement,” putting its goals within reach.
Yet some wariness remained.
“We are well aware that promises are not deeds,” said Troy Newman, the president of Operation Rescue. “We will work to hold the new administration’s feet to the fire throughout Trump’s presidency, to ensure that promises are kept.”
Planned Parenthood, whose services include birth control, sex education and abortions, has been a longtime target of Republican politicians, and is now bracing for intensified challenges.
“There are almost no words to capture the threat that this election result poses,” said the organization’s president, Cecile Richards. “We will not give up, we will not back down.”
On social media, many women were broaching the option of acquiring long-lasting intrauterine devices as their form of birth control, on the possibility that birth-control pills would no longer be available free if Obama’s health care act is repealed.
The GOP triumph was a heavy blow to the Human Rights Campaign and other gay-rights organizations which had worked vigorously on behalf of Hillary Clinton. They embraced her campaign as unprecedented in the breadth of its outreach to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.
“It hurts,” said Rachel Tiven, CEO of the LGBT-rights group Lambda Legal. “Our beautiful, slowly improving, two-steps-forward-one-step-back country took a giant step backward.”
LGBT activists are now wondering if same-sex marriage – legalized nationwide by a 2015 Supreme Court ruling – is in jeopardy given the prospect of Trump appointing conservative justices who might reconsider that decision.
Activists also are worried by news that Ken Blackwell, a former Cincinnati mayor, was being tapped to handle domestic issues for Trump’s transition team. Blackwell is a senior fellow with the Family Research Council, a staunch foe of same-sex marriage and other LGBT-rights causes.
On same-sex marriage and other issues, the Obama years brought one defeat after another for religious conservatives, who saw the president and his supporters on an inexorable march to curtail the rights of people of faith.
Liberals considered these fears overblown and said the First Amendment already offered significant protection for religious groups. But conservative Christians were deeply anxious about their future. Their only major victory came when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled two years ago in favor of Hobby Lobby, the Christian-owned arts and crafts chains with faith objections to the birth control coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act.
Now, advocates see a transformed landscape.
“We now have more equilibrium between the so-called competing sides – between the LGBT rights movement and the religious freedom proponents,” said Tim Schultz of the 1st Amendment Partnership, a Washington-based group which advocates for religious exemptions.
In a letter last month to Catholics, Trump decried what he called hostility to religious freedom and pledged, “I will defend your religious liberties and the right to fully and freely practice your religion, as individuals, business owners and academic institutions.”
During the campaign, he promised to repeal the Johnson Amendment, an IRS rule barring pastors from endorsing candidates from the pulpit.
Due to the election results, Schultz expects the Justice Department will be friendlier to religious conservatives, and Congress more willing to enact legislation that advances conscience protections.
Retired Navy Chaplain Wes Modder, a Pentecostal minister, was the target of a complaint that he was disrespectful in counseling gay sailors when discussing his religious opposition to same-sex relationships. The First Liberty Institute took him on as a client and successfully challenged the complaint as a violation of Modder’s religious freedom. The case became a rallying cry for Christian conservatives upset about the Obama administration’s support for LGBT rights.
“No military chaplain should have to go through what I went through,” Modder said of his fight to avoid being ousted from the Navy.
Modder, among military veterans who met with Trump in September, said he was very hopeful that Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence, a religious conservative, will advance policies that would prevent recurrences of what happened to him.
Trump “understands the importance of religious liberty,” said Modder, who recently retired from the military to become a pastor in Chicago. “The team that he is assembling, the people he is surrounding himself with, I think are going to give him the right messaging.”
Story: David Crary, Rachel Zoll