Thursday, April 9, 2015
This post was written by Nate Ela, of COWS
Amid the recent RFRA controversy in Indiana, some journalists got to asking whether the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) might’ve been behind the spread of “religious freedom” bills around the country. After all, over the years ALEC has promoted model bills on a wide range of topics.
But when the Christian Science Monitor looked into it, ALEC disavowed the RFRA bill entirely. As Bill Meierling, an ALEC spokesman, put it: “Limited government, free market and Federalism – if it doesn’t have to do with those three things we don’t do it.”
"Limited Government, Free Markets, Federalism" is ALEC's slogan, but it's a relatively recent proposition that the slogan actually defines the scope of its activities. ALEC has until just a few years ago promoted model bills whose connections to its slogan were tenuous, at best. Most notably, after the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, the organization drew attention – and controversy – over having promoted a model “stand your ground” law. So much controversy, in fact, that major corporate donors began fleeing.
Which makes one wonder: has ALEC’s distance from RFRA been due to principle, or fear of further divestment? After all, a free market could be interpreted as one where people are free to refrain from providing services that conflict with their religious beliefs. Or, for that matter, as one where people have a right to be served without regard to their sexual orientation, skin color, or religious beliefs.
It seems more likely that, in the wake of the stand your ground incident, ALEC's leadership has become hyper-aware of the threat of divestment – in two respects. First, the threat divestment poses for states that enact discriminatory laws, and are then targeted by campaigns like #BoycottIndiana. But also for ALEC itself, should controversial laws prompt its corporate sponsors to pull the plug on contributions.
Which brings us to Throwback Thursday. ALEC actually saw this coming – a long time ago.
Back in the early 1980s, ALEC was concerned about South Africa. Its concern was not so much the apartheid regime that was perpetuating institutionalized racial domination and exploitation, but rather some activists' efforts to put an end to that regime. As People for the American Way has described, ALEC mobilized throughout the 1980s to oppose the campaign to divest from South Africa. As it noted in a 1983 policy paper,
The underlying problem is the strategy itself – targeting countries for economic sanctions because of actual or alleged human rights violations. Although South Africa is the initial target, it is not likely to be the last… If successful on the South African issue, these activists can be expected to broaden their disinvestment strategy.
In light of recent events, the analysis was prescient. After the Trayvon Martin shooting, there were calls to #BoycottFlorida. When discriminatory RFRA bills were passed in Arizona and enacted in Indiana, there were calls to boycott those states as well. And in the latter cases, those calls for divestment worked. They stopped the RFRA bill in Arizona, and led to it being amended in Indiana.
What's more, as ALEC foresaw, the divestment strategy has broadened. It no longer sets its sights only on governments, but also on corporations and their allies. And, having identified ALEC as a key corporate ally, divestment activists have even marched right up to its own doorstep.
More on that – and ALEC’s response to it – tomorrow.