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Analysis: Texas culture warriors got a lot to work with last week

Culture wars feed political wars, and the candidates on both sides in the 2018 election cycle got a couple of big issues to fight about last week.

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The cake case decided by the nation's highest court last week landed right where political partisans might have hoped in this election year.

It’s a culture case, pitting free speech against individual rights, the right of a baker to refuse to use his artistic expressions on behalf of a same-sex marriage he doesn’t support and the right of a couple to walk into a store and get the same goods and services — a custom-made wedding cake — that everyone else is allowed to purchase.

Anyone reasonably conversant in politics could write a fundraising letter for the culture warriors on either side and probably complete it within 15 minutes. “If you believe, as we do, that the constitutional rights of [bakers/same-sex couples] should be protected, send money to...”

You get the idea.

It’s because the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t really take a side in the Masterpiece Cake case, ruling that Colorado officials sided with the couple because of their own biases. That gave this win to the baker, but without telling other bakers and people like them which side will have the upper hand in future cases like this. The judges never really got to the fight about rights, leaving that, for now, in the hands of lawmakers and candidates. And fundraisers.

These culture cases don’t end with cakes. Another ruling from the high court obliterates the federal ban on sports betting, leaving to the states an issue that the federal government wanted to control. That was good news for New Jersey and Nevada, in particular, where sports books are an important part of the nation’s two biggest gambling centers.

Lawmakers in other states, like Texas, are more conservative about gambling. In the case of sports betting, lawmakers here have been able to duck the question by saying there is no good reason to debate something that violates federal law.

Gambling is often part of the conversation when the state is short of cash or in a recession. That’s how conservative Texas legislatures, with voters’ help, approved bingo, horse racing and a state lottery. Sports betting, it turns out, has more in common with the first two of those; according to the experts — the state comptroller and the financial ratings agencies — taxes on the estimated $150 billion bet annually on sports wouldn’t amount to much in a state as big as Texas.

And as a political matter, it doesn’t appear to have the attention of enough voters to turn candidates’ heads. Casino gaming is an on-again, off-again issue in Texas; sports gambling, it seems, is a minor matter at best.

The sparks for culture fires don’t have to start in the Supreme Court; all you need is a president willing to start a conversation about disrupting federal laws.

We have just the guy for you: Donald Trump said on Friday that he would likely support a congressional effort to end the federal ban on marijuana. Nine states have already legalized pot, flying in the face of the feds by doing so and creating some unexpected problems: Marijuana money is out of bounds for federally insured banks, for instance, forcing a new marijuana industry to find other ways to handle the cash that’s pouring in.

Cue the writers of those political fundraising letters. Public opinion on marijuana laws is shifting, to be sure, but that shift is happening at different speeds in different cultural pockets. In a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll in February 2017, 17 percent of Texans said marijuana should not be legal at all and another 30 percent would allow it only for medical purposes. The remaining 53 percent would legalize it, either in small amounts for personal use or in any amounts for any purpose. Two years earlier, a UT/TT Poll found 24 percent against possession for any reason and 34 percent saying they would allow it for medical use. Less than half — 42 percent — favored legalization for non-medical uses.

Trump’s own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has been an outspoken opponent of looser marijuana laws, but it’s an issue in this year's race for U.S. Senate in Texas. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has said the issue should be left to the states. And U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, his Democratic opponent, is a strong proponent of legalization.

Culture warriors won’t find much meat in the sports betting argument, but pot is promising for the political year. And they can always eat cake.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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