By Tal Kopan
CLEVELAND — Social conservatives won early victories in the debate on the Republican Party platform as delegates gathered here for their first full day of meetings before next week’s Republican National Convention, fighting back efforts to moderate on LGBT issues — including the use of restrooms for transgender people — and strengthening party provisions opposing abortion rights.
The debate over social issues carries extra weight this year, as conservatives and evangelical voters look to ensure the platform still reflects Republican orthodoxy despite the presumptive nomination of Donald Trump, who has more moderate views on abortion rights, for instance, than the 2012 platform.
The sometimes heated debate came to an emotional head late Monday evening as D.C. delegate Rachel Hoff came out as the first openly gay member of the Republican Convention Platform Committee — her voice catching as she pleaded with her colleagues to adopt a platform more welcoming of LGBT Americans.
She received only polite applause for her proposal, and the committee quickly moved to vote against her amendment. Asking for a recorded vote instead of the customary voice vote, a handful of delegates raised their hands to support Hoff, while the overwhelming majority rejected her amendment.
Monday morning started with a debate about transgender Americans’ use of public restrooms.
The original draft of the 2016 GOP platform, obtained by CNN, included a passage about Title IX that chastises the White House for federal guidance instructing public facilities like schools to accommodate transgender individuals.
“That same (Title IX) provision of law is now being used by bureaucrats — and by the current president of the United States — to impose a social and cultural revolution upon the American people,” the draft reads. “Their edict to the States concerning restrooms, locker rooms and other facilities is at once illegal, ominous, and ignores privacy issues. We salute the several States which have filed suit against it.”
At Monday’s early platform meetings, a subcommittee changed the word “ominous” to “dangerous.”
Though the subcommittee added a line at the end stating: “We support and encourage the common sense of protecting public safety and personal privacy by limiting access to restrooms, locker rooms,” and other facilities, in the morning session, they rolled back that addition in the evening without much objection, leaving the rest of the anti-administration language intact.
Annie Dickerson, a delegate from New York, gave multiple impassioned pleas to her colleagues to consider taking positions that would welcome LGBT Republicans into the fold, proposing an amendment that was defeated to strike the language on bathrooms entirely.
“To those of us who have gay family members, our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors, they are our friends … I think it only hurts us, it shrinks our tent,” Dickerson said.
She had some support in that effort from Kentucky delegate and state Sen. Julie Adams and Tennessee delegate Connie Hunter, who both warned of “overkill.”
“This is .001%, (of the population) yet we’re elevating this to a national issue, it’s kind of mind-boggling to me that we would elevate it to this extent,” Adams said. “I believe that the Republican Party is a big tent. I believe that we’re open to everybody, and I think that this is overkill.”
But led by strong support from delegates including Louisiana delegate and Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, as well as West Virginia’s Melody Potter and North Carolina’s Mary Forrester, the language passed easily.
The position counters that of presumptive nominee Trump himself, who has expressed more moderate positions on social issues throughout the campaign. He said he had no objection to celebrity Caitlyn Jenner, who was born male, using the women’s restroom at Trump Tower, and has expressed support for exceptions to anti-abortion language for instances like life of the mother or rape or incest.
Perkins, a Louisiana delegate who served on the subcommittee, said there was no problem with Trump being sometimes at odds with the platform passed by the committee.
“He’s going to be the nominee for the party,” Perkins said. “He has his own ideas, but this is a statement of not Donald Trump’s campaign but of the Republican Party.”
Delegates also passed several provisions strengthening the party’s position on opposing abortion rights, approving a call to strip funding from providers found to violate state or federal law and another supporting putting the Hyde Amendment, a legal provision barring the use of federal funds for abortion, into the form of a full statute.
The committee also added language supporting so-called religious freedom laws, which protect businesses that refuse services to individuals (like same-sex couples getting married) on the basis of religious objections. It also numerous times preserved language about the importance of families with “a married mom and dad.”
But the committee also did not touch on one departure from the platform since 2004, which had called for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The draft presented to delegates opted instead to call for judicial reconsideration of gay marriage decisions and for a constitutional amendment leaving marriage to the states.
Perkins also won a bid to add the word “therapy” to the platform, making it read “we support the right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment or therapy for their minor children.”
That was read as a move to allow conversion therapy, a controversial practice that attempts to convert youths away from being gay, that has been banned by some state and local governments.
“It’s what it says, it’s whatever therapy that a parent wants to get for a minor child,” Perkins said when asked about the change. “There’s states that are trying to restrict what parents can do for loving their children. Parents have a better idea I think than legislators or government bureaucrats.”
Dickerson did score one win — opposing an amendment that would have encouraged children to be in their “biological” homes. Dickerson mentioned she had adopted children, and others in the room agreed. “Hell no!” exclaimed one delegate at the table as the crosstalk heated up.
Perkins also said he was happy with the platform, including the provision on same-sex marriage.
“There’s still language in there discussing a constitutional amendment, but I think this document is where does the Republican Party goes in the next four years, and I think that’s part of where we are and it’s what this platform addresses,” Perkins said.
Medical marijuana debate
In another victory for social conservatives but a sign that the party has delegates pushing for more moderation, the full Platform Committee held a lengthy debate on a proposal from a Maine delegate to make medical cannabis legal.
“All of the mass killings that have taken place, they’re young boys from divorced families and they’re all smoking pot,” one delegate said.
“We’re not talking about Cheech and Chong being encouraged here, we’re talking specifically about people with debilitating conditions,” another fired back.
In a contested vote, the amendment ultimately failed. A handful of delegates who spoke up made the case that while medical marijuana may be promising, the GOP platform was not the place for such a major policy change.
Once the subcommittee completes its work, the full 112-member Platform Committee will discuss the draft and will vote, sending that version to the full floor for consideration.