Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed into law Thursday a bill he claims will protect religious liberty in his state. Overwhelmingly approved by that state’s Republican-controlled legislature, the law allows businesses and workers, citing their religious beliefs, to refuse service to anyone they find objectionable. Of course, what the so-called “religious freedom” act really does is legalize discrimination against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people.
As a nation, we are moving decisively toward marriage equality — 36 states already allow it. For the first time, a majority of Americans, 56 percent, support same-sex marriage, according to a 2014 survey by NORC, an independent research organization based at the University of Chicago, and funded by the National Science Foundation. The Supreme Court is expected to rule this spring on whether denying marriage to gay and lesbian couples violates the Constitution. That could clear the way for same-sex marriage nationwide.
Meanwhile, legislators from West Virginia to Hawaii are waging a hollow fight to join 19 states already on the wrong side of history. Hiding behind religious freedom, they’re pushing right-to-discriminate bills they say protect people unwilling to compromise their beliefs for business. And nothing, they say, is a greater threat to those beliefs than the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people.
“The LGBT movement is the main thing, the primary thing that’s going to be challenging religious liberties and the freedom to live out religious convictions,” Oklahoma state Senator Joseph Silk, who is sponsoring a pro-discrimination bill in his state, recently told the New York Times. “They don’t have the right to be served in every single store.”
These laws are based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Four years later, when the Supreme Court ruled that act did not apply to states, legislators began to concoct their own.
That’s led to states like Colorado considering two right-to-discriminate bills, a likely response to a state judge’s ruling last year against a baker, citing his religious convictions, told a gay couple that it was his policy to deny service to anyone requesting his wares for a same-sex wedding. After the ruling, Amanda C. Goad, staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project, said, “While we all agree that religious freedom is important, no one’s religious beliefs make it acceptable to break the law by discriminating against prospective customers.”
Still, the evocation of religion as a veil for intolerance remains. In February, a lesbian couple took their newborn daughter to her first appointment with a Michigan pediatrician they’d chosen months earlier. When they arrived, they were told that the doctor, after “much prayer,” decided she could not treat a child of lesbians. The couple called the experience “humiliating,” but it was also legal, since there is no federal or Michigan law that explicitly prohibits discrimination against LGBT people. (All New England states have laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.)
Several generations ago, black people were denied service at Southern lunch counters. Now, under a cloak of religious liberty, some business owners and lawmakers want to do the same to lesbians and gays. And such bans likely wouldn’t stop there. Could they next deny service to single mothers or followers of religions that differ from their own? Such a law isn’t a slippery slope; it’s a bottomless pit. What they are proposing is nothing more than archaic Jim Crow-era tactics covered in stained glass.
Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” To favor discrimination over justice is not to bend at all. Earlier this month, much was said about the strides this country has made since “Bloody Sunday,” when African-Americans and their supporters, determined to secure their right to vote, were savagely attacked by state troopers as they attempted to peacefully march across a bridge in Selma, Alabama.
No one can deny the progress of the past 50 years, yet everyday that progress, and our commitment to safeguarding it for all Americans, is threatened and tested. As this nation continues its struggle toward that more perfect union it has aspired to be for more than two centuries, some still want a country less just and less inclusive. They don’t just want to stop time; left unchallenged, they will turn back the clock on us all.
Renée Graham is a writer in Boston.