National

Culture-War Travel Bans Are Counterproductive

Why can't California researchers use state money to travel to Tennessee?

Welcome to Texas? Not so fast.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It’s now illegal to use California state funds to travel to eight other states: Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas. The travel ban, which went into effect Jan. 1 and expanded last month, punishes states with laws that run afoul of California’s anti-discrimination statute covering sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

Texas, for instance, has a new law allowing private child welfare groups that receive state money to cite “sincerely held religious beliefs” in declining to place children with certain types of families, including gay couples or single parents. Kansas allows student religious groups to require members or leaders to adhere to specific doctrines or conduct rules, including those about sex. That may sound like an inoffensive measure, but California, by contrast, requires officially recognized student groups to adopt an “all comers” policy that lets any currently enrolled student join or serve as an officer.

The travel ban includes a few exemptions, such as law enforcement and litigation trips, but it covers most activities. In particular, it blocks professors and students from traveling to research conferences on state money, unless the trip is required by an existing grant. It also denies travel funds for sports events not already under contract before Jan. 1, 2017.

For a state that prides itself on its cosmopolitanism and world-renowned research universities, the rule is perverse. By declaring that even minor carve-outs for conscientious objectors violate its anti-discrimination tenets -- and that those tenets almost always trump other considerations -- this proudly diverse state seeks to impose cultural homogeneity on the entire nation.

The travel ban is especially ironic as liberals lament state preemption laws that prevent cities in conservative states from enacting left-wing measures. California is trying to export its policies to places that aren’t even in its jurisdiction. And in many cases the ban punishes the same liberal oases hammered by conservative preemption statutes. It doesn’t matter if your conference is in Charlotte or Austin; California wants nothing to do with it.

The law undercuts the idea that state-funded travel is a benefit for the taxpayers footing the bill. It treats this supposed public good as nothing more than a subsidy for the hotels and restaurants elsewhere in the country. If that’s the case, all state-funded travel beyond those few exceptions should end. If not, University of California oncology researchers should still be able to use state money to attend the annual San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, one of the field’s most important meetings. Hampering breast-cancer research is not LGBT-friendly.

California’s intolerance in the name of tolerance is also selective and ethnocentric. It applies only to U.S. destinations. For many LGBT people around the world, living under Texas or Kansas law would be a great liberation. Forget high-profile offenders like Russia. What about Turkey or Singapore? A consistent policy would even deny travel funds for Poland. If the community of scholars can span regimes as diverse as China, India, and Iran, surely it can make room for North Carolina.

Most corrosive is the ban’s assumption that separatism rather than interaction is the best way to encourage tolerance. “The law is a juvenile but well-intended reaction to a real problem,” Mark Rivera, a UC-Davis senior denied funding to travel to a Tennessee research conference, told the Los Angeles Times. “Instead of discouraging travel to supposedly backward places, we should encourage travel; otherwise, campuses will become more insular and make the problem worse.”

Bans don’t win hearts and minds. They make their targets mad. They also deprive local minorities of contact with national allies, isolating them still further. And they could easily spread. Texas and Tennessee might retaliate with a boycott against California while Massachusetts and New York join the blue-state alliance. The result would be fewer national gatherings, corroded communities of interest, and increased geographic fragmentation. The country is already dangerously polarized. California, of all places, should understand the perils of exacerbating fault lines.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Virginia Postrel at vpostrel@bloomberg.net

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