Which comes first, principle or commerce?

The attempt by Republican members of the Nevada Legislature to use government to permit discrimination against gays under the guise of religious freedom appears to have come to an end. I say “appears” because the closing days of most legislatures produce some surprises, and there’s always the chance the bills could be revived then under some parliamentary machinations.

I also say “appears” because if the proposal couldn’t be passed in a legislature with these kinds of Republican majorities, it probably can’t be passed in any future legislature.

Still, the idea deserves continuing scrutiny, because it keeps raising its head, in Nevada and elsewhere. It has been a source of problems everywhere it has appeared this year.

In Indiana, the best known case, the original bill created such a storm and was poised to create so many problems for tourism and economic development that state lawmakers rushed through an amended version of the law that essentially voided the original because, Gov. Mike Pence said, “this law has become a subject of great misunderstanding.” Actually, the law was extremely well-understood and that was what caused problems for the state.

In Arizona, where lawmakers had not previously seen a foolish law they didn’t love, the legislature passed a similar law and then all heck broke loose. The law allowed denial of service to gays. Major corporations like Apple threatened to take their business elsewhere, there was talk of launching a tourism boycott against the state, and tens of thousands of hostile letters poured into Gov. Jan Brewer’s office.

Several legislators who had voted for the bill turned on a dime and begged Brewer to bail them out by vetoing it. Brewer, who had previously embraced all kinds of ugliness and polarization, said she would veto the measure: “Senate Bill 1062 … could divide Arizona in ways we cannot even imagine and no one would ever want. Let’s turn the ugliness of the debate … into a renewed search for greater respect and understanding among all Arizonans and Americans.”

One of the Republican legislators who voted for the bill and then changed his mind was GOP Sen. Adam Driggs “It’s really not about the content of the bill right now,” he said. “It’s about the perception.”

That’s an interesting rationalization. There are folks in the Nevada Legislature who are saying similar things — that they still believe in the idea, but don’t want to scare off business.

“We obviously do not want to have happen in Nevada what’s been threatened to happen in Indiana as far as a boycott and things like that,” said Clark County Assemblyman Erven Nelson.

These are folks who are willing to hold out on principle until the last dog dies on new taxes in the state, but they cave in on a matter of principle as soon as it threatens the business community.

It’s very reminiscent of a couple of Nevada ballot measures of the 1990s. In 1994, an Oregon anti­-gay activist came to Nevada and circulated an initiative petition making it legal to discriminate against gays. The casino industry, fearing another anti­-Nevada boycott (the state had lost millions of dollars of tourism and convention business after rejecting the Equal Rights Amendment), opposed the proposal.

That gave state politicians political cover and Gov. Robert Miller, Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones, U.S. Rep. Barbara Vucanovich and others opposed the measure, and it failed to gain enough signatures.

Six years later, an initiative petition to ban marriage equality was circulated in Nevada. By then, the casino industry had learned to lure gay tourists to the state with skilled advertising campaigns that protected them from state actions, so they no longer cared about boycotts and they stayed out of the issue. Without the casinos’ skirt to hide behind, politicians either fell silent or supported the petition. Some, such as Vucanovich, switched sides and supported the anti-­gay position. The petition received the signatures it needed and was approved by voters.

Whether commerce or principle is the main consideration in anti­-gay politics is determined by more than the actual issues involved.

Dennis Myers is a veteran Nevada journalist.

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