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Legislating Prejudice

The Politics of Bigotry

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI

“It is never too late to give up our prejudices.”

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

There are things to be grateful for. Our bigotry is much more civilized than bigotry found in other countries.  Just compare.

In Abuja, Nigeria in early February, a mob attacked young gay men, dragging some of them from their homes, beating them with clubs and whips and shouting that it was “cleansing the community.”  When the victims were turned over to the police, they were given further beatings.  The mob was inspired to attack by a new law that was signed by President Jonathan Goodluck, The law provides for a 14-year prison sentence if a person is convicted of being gay.

In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has promised to sign a new piece of legislation that prescribes life sentences in prison for acts of “aggravated homosexuality.”  Among the acts proscribed are repeated sexual acts among consenting adults of the same sex. The also law applies to Ugandans living abroad who may be extradited if they violate its terms.

Russia, too, has recently taken steps to protect itself from the scourge of what its gay (as in cheerful and of unfailing good humor) president, Vladimir Putin, objects to.  In 2012 in Moscow, city and district courts upheld a Moscow ban on gay pride parades.  The ban is to remain in place for 100 years.  The ban seems harsh until one realizes that it was imposed as a courtesy to the gay community.  It takes a long time to organize a gay pride parade and by letting the community know that the ban will be in effect for 100 years the gay community will not waste its time planning such an event.  On June 30, 2013 President Putin signed a bill banning  “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” subjecting violators to arrest and fines.  Another permits police to arrest and hold for up to 14 days, tourists suspected of being gay or pro-gay. All of which brings us back to the United States which, as I said, is much more civilized in discriminating against gays.

Consider Kansas.  It just decided, at least for now, to tone down its anti-gay legislation.  On February 12, 2014 the Kansas House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed House Bill 2453 known as the Religious Liberty Bill.  Drafted by bigots whose intelligence is defined by their beliefs, it was a bit hard to understand. The bill provides that  “if it would be contrary to the sincerely held religious beliefs of [an] individual or religious entity regarding sex or gender” such a person or religious entity shall not be required by any governmental entity to, among other things:  “provide any services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges. . . related to (sic) or related to the celebration of, any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement.”

The bill passed the Kansas House on February 12, 2013 by a 72 to 49 vote.   It looked like it was headed to similar success in the Kansas Senate until the president of the Senate raised concerns as to how it might impact public safety if firemen with religious beliefs went to a burning house occupied by a gay couple.  Although it is unclear how putting out a fire is “related to the celebration of, any marriage, etc” she felt that language could in fact impact public safety and firemen unwilling to provide services to married gay couples might decline to extinguish the blaze. As she explained:  “I believe that when you hire police officers or a fireman that they have no choice in who (sic) they serve.”  .  A close reading of the bill suggests that its impact on public safety is the least of its problems. Kansas is not, of course, alone.  Bills in Ohio, Mississippi, Arizona, Idaho and Oklahoma permit people to assert religious freedom defenses if sued by gays whom they refused to serve.

Bigotry is not restricted to legislatures.  U.S. News and World Report had a picture of E.W. Jackson, a former candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia addressing a group of demonstrators in front of the federal courthouse in Norfolk, Virginia.  He was lamenting the fact that a federal judge had struck down Virginia’s law banning same sex marriage.  Mr. Jackson is black and an enthusiastic supporter of laws that discriminate against gays.  He probably is too young to remember when Virginia said it would have been a felony for Mr. Jackson to marry a white woman.  Had he done so he and his wife could have been sentenced to prison for up to five years.

Ted Cruz, the United States’ answer to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni has introduced a bill in the United States Senate to permit states to define marriage any way they see fit.  As Mr. Cruz explained, the bill “respects the definition of marriage held by the people of each state and protects states from the federal government’s efforts to force any other definition upon them.”  Mr. Cruz does not think the U.S. Constitution should keep people from discriminating against their citizens if that’s what a majority of their citizens want.  Kind of the way Virginia did it before the U.S. Supreme Court said blacks could marry anyone they wanted to marry.  Mr. Cruz would probably have opposed ending the ban.  He’s for what he believes even if it tramples on a minority-kind of like Presidents Goodluck, Museveni and Putin.

Christopher Brauchli is a lawyer in Boulder, Colorado. He can be emailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu