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Some Republicans are turning to a religious freedom fight in wake of gay marriage ruling

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was burned by business when he took up that fight

Washington CNN  — 

The Supreme Court’s decision Friday to legalize same-sex marriage everywhere offered the GOP a way out of a debate that national polls show has turned into a loser for their candidates. But some Republican presidential contenders are ready for another cultural and civil rights battle — this time over religious liberty.

On Sunday, several 2016 hopefuls sought to court evangelical Christians who make up much of the base Republicans must win over to advance out of the primary election, signaling that they’re willing to deal with the accusations of discrimination that states like Indiana have faced in order to protect religious rights.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee channeled Martin Luther King, Jr. calling for non-violent resistance to the court’s ruling.

“May I ask, are we going to now discriminate against people of conscience, people of faith, who disagree with this ruling?” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “I’m not sure that every governor and every attorney general should just say, ‘Well, it’s the law of the land’ because there’s no enabling legislation.”

RELATED: How the GOP won on same-sex marriage

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz went even further in the wake of the ruling, telling an Iowa crowd that “the last 24 hours at the United States Supreme Court were among the darkest hours of our nation.”

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul wrote for Time Magazine that he will “resist any intrusion of government into the religious sphere” — and that means ending marriage benefits like tax breaks and getting government out of the institution altogether.

“Since government has been involved in marriage, they have done what they always do — taxed it, regulated it, and now redefined it,” he wrote. “It is hard to argue that government’s involvement in marriage has made it better, a fact also not surprising to those who believe government does little right.”

And Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal predicted the fight over religious liberty would persist through the 2016 election.

“Here’s where the next fight’s going: I think the left is now going to go after our First Amendment rights,” Jindal said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“I think it is wrong for the federal government to force Christian individuals, businesses, pastors, churches to participate in wedding ceremonies that violate our sincerely held religious beliefs,” he said. “We have to stand up and fight for religious liberty. That’s where this fight is going. The left wants to silence us, Hillary Clinton wants to silence us, we’re not going away.”

The issue thrust Indiana into the national spotlight – and ended any hope Gov. Mike Pence had for a dark-horse presidential campaign – three months ago when the Republican-dominated Legislature there passed a “religious freedom” law that critics said would have allowed businesses to turn away gay customers.

It was Pence’s struggles to explain the move, capped by a widely panned interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week,” that led Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson to order changes to a similar bill in his state and led others, including Georgia, to drop their legislative pushes for “religious freedom” measures altogether.

Pence’s debacle also attracted the attention of some presidential candidates, who tried to to both rally to the cause but not risk alienating any powerful – think business – interests.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Pence, in “fixing” the law had done “the right thing.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said Christian photographers shouldn’t be punished for refusing to shoot a same-sex wedding.

And former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said at the time he stands for “religious liberty and real tolerance.”

The issue – similar to immigration – is a conundrum for Republicans. Their primary electorate opposes same-sex marriage, while national polls show the general public is much more supportive of allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed. The Supreme Court’s ruling has evoked fears that religious rights are poised to be trampled if a liberal president succeeds President Barack Obama and appoints more Supreme Court justices.

Cruz has even called for a constitutional amendment judicial elections for Supreme Court justices in the wake of the Court ruling.

“I am proposing an amendment to the Constitution to subject #SCOTUS justices to periodic judicial retention elections #BelieveAgain,” he tweeted on Saturday.

Some GOP contenders weren’t eager to start a new fight over religious liberty on Sunday, though.

“I think we need to take a deep breath,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“Look, I believe in traditional marriage, but the Supreme Court has ruled, and it’s the law of the land, and we’ll abide by it,” he said. “And I think everybody needs to take a deep breath to see how this evolves.”

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Republicans should “fight for the religious liberties of every American.”

But he used much less stark language than other contenders, saying the ruling was a “transformational moment.”

“There are a lot of upset people who believe in traditional marriage. They’re disappointed, they’re down right now,” he said.

Graham said he would, as president, protect the tax-exempt status of religious institutions that refuse to participate in same-sex weddings.

“If you’re a gay person or a gay couple, if I’m president of the United States, you will be able to participate in commerce and be a full member of society, consistent with the religious beliefs of others who have rights also,” he said.

Meanwhile, Democrats like Hillary Clinton, who only years ago said she opposed same-sex marriage, have celebrated the Supreme Court’s ruling. It’s provided a perfect opportunity to demonstrate a stark partisan difference on an issue where broad public opinion favors the Democrats.

A CNN/ORC poll from April showed 57% of those surveyed felt businesses such as caterers or florists should be required to serve gay or lesbian couples just as they would heterosexual couples, compared to 41% who said they should be allowed to refuse service for religious reasons.