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Why are states still passing awful laws?

Did North Carolina and Georgia learn nothing from Indiana?

Exactly one year ago, the nation's eyes were fixed on Indiana as that state was deluged with protests after it passed a controversial religious freedom law. That law gave businesses the right to choose not do business with customers whose beliefs they didn't agree with. It came after Christian bakery owners in Oregon faced prosecution and civil penalties for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.



People protest outside the North Carolina Executive Mansion in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, March 24, 2016. North Carolina legislators decided to rein in local governments by approving a bill Wednesday that prevents cities and counties from passing their own anti-discrimination rules.
Emery P. Dalesio | AP
People protest outside the North Carolina Executive Mansion in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, March 24, 2016. North Carolina legislators decided to rein in local governments by approving a bill Wednesday that prevents cities and counties from passing their own anti-discrimination rules.

Yielding to pressure from gay rights groups and major corporations including Apple, Indiana Governor Mike Pence worked with the legislature to modify the law.

So how is that just one year later, North Carolina's governor signed a law that eliminates discrimination protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and Georgia's legislature attempted to push through a measure similar to Indiana's original "religious freedom" bill? Did they not anticipate the backlash and subsequent harm to its economy that would follow?

They probably did but that wouldn't be a deterrent because winning over the Internet, Hollywood and Corporate America was never the goal.

Remember that famous line from the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill: "All politics is local."


It doesn't get much more local than state legislatures, where a very small number of votes is all you need to swing an election. In North Carolina, just about every general election for state house seats draws a miniscule total of about 25,000 votes cast. In Georgia, state house elections usually draw an average of just 10,000 total votes cast!

So, the backing of just a few medium-sized church groups could be all it takes for a candidate to win an election.

The chances were slim to none of companies like Apple or even SalesForce getting involved in donations for those local elections. Those companies are also not very likely to come to their district and set up offices or factories. And the national news media isn't likely to ever get interested either. For these state reps, an entirely different and extremely local set of factors decides their political and professional fate. And in the rural areas of the country where evangelical communities are strong and political and religious engagement go hand-in-hand, these kinds of religious-freedom laws are going to be popular for some time to come.


That's regardless of how anti-gay or unpopular they appear to be to blue states or Corporate America. It's regardless of what religious people like me think. Because I actually worry that these laws are dangerous for religious Americans, too — precisely because they encourage outside interference in religious life in areas where no real threats exist. At a time when religious communities face a far more real and existential threat of losing their tax-exempt status for houses of worship and schools, these unnecessary laws protecting religious people from extremely rare incidents in bathrooms and bakeries open the door to political scrutiny and backlash.

But I don't have to run for office, and the devout church goers don't have to run for office. The politicians do. And politicians love to take advantage of real or imagined voter fears to win elections. We might think the local elected leaders of states like North Carolina are cowering under pressure from religious groups, but the opposite is more likely to be true. Politicians are playing on the hyped up fears of their local religious voters to get added support.

That's right. This may only be the tip of the iceberg for these types of laws – especially in an election year.

Now, here's the caveat: Governors have to cast a much wider net of political support. For them, a few churches isn't going to do it. That's the real reason why Georgia's Republican Governor Nathan Deal vetoed his state's new religious freedom law. It's why Republican Governor Pence moved Heaven and Earth to change Indiana's law last year. And it's why I think North Carolina Republican Governor Pat McCrory will eventually cave and do the same. For state governors, outside corporate and other financial concerns do matter and those factors are part of what makes up their "local" political world.

In the meantime, this is far from over. Mississippi's state legislature just passed a similar religious freedom law, and a handful of other states will probably follow suit. And all of it will be the result of state legislators manipulating extremely local and small voter bases to remain in office. These are fool's errands that threaten the people in these states both economically and religiously, but as long as they help local politicians win elections this trend will continue.

Because, say it with me now: "All politics is local."


Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.