Religious Liberty As Bigotry — Discrimination Historically The Purview Of Religious Zealots

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
– Judge Leon M. Bazile, January 6, 1959

Yesterday it was “The Coloreds;” today it is “The Gays.”

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Arizona Governor Jan Brewer today vetoed the License To Discriminate Against Gays law passed by Arizona’s house and senate. That’s a good thing. But what’s bad is that she did it for economic reasons as opposed to ethical and moral reasons (Apple, American Airlines, the NFL, all the tourism associations, etc implored her to veto the bill because implementation would inevitably mean economic boycotts against the state).

I agree with using all tools available to shoot down these religion-based bigotry bills, no doubt, yet it should be stated clearly that the greater and heftier rationale for veto are ethical and moral. In a land that espouses freedoms as a central premise, any legislation that codifies discrimination because an individual does not like another person’s life should be anathema and promptly shot down.

rel-fIn one’s religious realm (at their church or in their home), one may treat and allow in another in any way they would like (short of abuse and physical harm or death), but when running a business or interacting in daily life, one is in the social and civil realm, and here you may not violate another’s freedoms to live… that is the US Constitution. That means that one’s freedom to act discriminatorily is illegal. Don’t like that the constitution protects even those you don’t approve? As conservatives have said for years to protesters, etc… if you don’t like it here, maybe you should leave for some other country.

For far too long, conservatives have used the shield of religious freedom to enshrine bigotry and discrimination. It’s nothing new. The righteous must always have the unrighteous.

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While LGBT Americans are the current target of this effort to repackage prejudice as “religious liberty,” we are hardly the first. As Wake Forest law Professor Michael Kent Curtis explained in a 2012 law review article, many segregationists justified racial bigotry on the very same grounds that religious conservatives now hope to justify anti-gay discrimination. In the words of one professor at a prominent Mississippi Baptist institution, “our Southern segregation way is the Christian way . . . . [God] was the original segregationist.”

In 1901, Georgia Gov. Allen Candler defended unequal public schooling for African Americans on the grounds that “God made them negroes and we cannot by education make them white folks.” After the Supreme Court ordered public schools integrated in Brown v. Board of Education, many segregationists cited their own faith as justification for official racism. Ross Barnett won Mississippi’s governorship in a landslide in 1960 after claiming that “the good Lord was the original segregationist.” Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia relied on passages from Genesis, Leviticus and Matthew when he spoke out against the civil rights law banning employment discrimination and whites-only lunch counters on the Senate floor.

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Bob Jones University excluded African Americans completely until the early 1970s. The IRS revoked the schools tax-exempt status, and the school sued. When Bob Jones’ case reached the Supreme Court, the school argued that IRS’ regulations denying tax exemptions to racist institutions “cannot constitutionally be applied to schools that engage in racial discrimination on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs.” Doesn’t that rationale sound familiar? But the justices did not agree. In an 8-1 decision by conservative Chief Justice Warren Burger, the Court explained that, “On occasion this Court has found certain governmental interests so compelling as to allow even regulations prohibiting religiously based conduct.” Prohibiting race discrimination is one of these interests. And in these modern times, prohibiting discrimination based upon sexuality has come to be one of these interests.

Importantly, in United States v. Lee, the Supreme Court has also ruled, “When followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity.”

A religious bigot’s decision to refuse to do business with someone — especially for reasons such as race or sexual orientation — can fundamentally demean that individual and deny them their own right to participate equally in society.

Religious liberty is an important value and it rightfully belongs in our Constitution, but we do not allow it to be used to destroy the rights of others. Hateful discrimination is wrong. And it doesn’t matter why someone wants to discriminate.

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Through their varied talking points, conservatives advance a narrative suggesting a “religious rights vs. gay rights” conflict, ignoring the fact that not all religious persons are anti-gay and the reality that many gay persons are religious. Moreover, it suggests an uneven playing field that is opposite of reality.

There are NO federal laws protecting gay citizens from discrimination in employment, housing, or public accommodations. Many states and cities offer their own laws to compensate for this national failure, but gays are still largely unprotected throughout the country. Conversely, religious discrimination has been prohibited under federal law since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964!

Conservatives absurdly portrait gay nondiscrimination protections as “special privileges,” implying that religious people are thus at a disadvantage… even though the religious already enjoy those same protections! Based on this false premise, conservatives argue that religion needs its own extra protection to compensate for these “special” gay protections — a law like what was proposed in Arizona. In reality, such a law would give religion an unfair advantage, allowing religion to trump any protections gay citizens might enjoy through other state or local laws.

THIS is really what “Religious Freedom” means in these debates: it frames a discussion for conservative Christians wrestling with the emerging equality of a previously disadvantaged group.

Just as segregationists argued during the 20th Century that “God created the races” and “placed them on separate continents” for a reason, 21st Century conservatives similarly struggle to reconcile legal equality for the gay community with a religious tradition of condemning homosexuality.

Rather than “burdening” religious belief, the progression of gay citizens’ equality simply presents a new legal framework to ensure that anti-gay religious beliefs are not unjustly imposed upon others.


2 responses to “Religious Liberty As Bigotry — Discrimination Historically The Purview Of Religious Zealots

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