It is a whole new approach to bigotry and it comes just as the country is celebrating 50 years since Bloody Sunday in Selma. Those who still secretly harbor a longing for the days when racial prejudice was accepted in many parts of the country will be kicking themselves for not having thought of it back then. I refer of course to the steps being taken by state legislatures around the country to give religious cover to those who continue to find satisfaction in asserting their superiority to others by invoking whatever God they happen to be worshipping. Those over whom the devout wish to establish their superiority are the members of the LGBT community. As this is written legislators in at least five states are considering legislation that blesses (my word rather than theirs) the actions of those who refuse to make wedding cakes for same sex couples, offer them employment or otherwise assert their right to refuse to serve members of the gay community.
In Georgia two different versions of what is called the “Preservation of Religious Freedom Act” are being considered. If enacted they would give Georgians “the right to act or refuse to act in a manner substantially motivated by a sincerely held religious tenet or belief whether or not the exercise is compulsory or a central part or requirement of the person’s religious tenets or beliefs.” The bill has gotten through the senate judiciary committee but has not yet been set for a formal vote. In Mississippi a pro-discrimination bill provides that the state may not “burden” a person’s exercise of religion. The bill was passed unanimously in the state senate. It now awaits action by the state house. In Missouri Senate Bill 916 permits businesses to refuse service to anyone if “the refusal is substantially motivated by sincere religious belief . . . .” If God tells someone in Missouri not to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple the law will sanction the refusal. Notwithstanding the foregoing, not all the news in this arena is bad.
In Colorado a pro-bigotry bill which is described in its preamble as being for “the protection of a person’s first amendment rights in the enforcement of public accommodations laws, and, in connection therewith, protecting a person’s right to not be involuntarily compelled in speech, acts of artistic expression, or acts of religious expression” was defeated in committee. Had it passed the owner of a hotel could have refused to rent a room to a gay couple without being in violation of any law pertaining to making accommodations available to all. It would also protect the baker whose religious belief tells him it is wrong to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. A companion bill was also defeated. It was described as concerning “state freedom of conscience protection act” and specified that “no state action may burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability. . . .” This bill, too, would have protected the recalcitrant baker. Colorado was not the only state to decline to follow in the footsteps of Missouri et al.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill presented to her entitled the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” She said the vetoed bill that her Republican controlled legislature passed would have permitted business owners to refuse service to gay people on the basis of religious beliefs.
In Arkansas a conscience protection bill was proposed. If a person’s conscience told the person that serving a gay person was wrong the bill provided that the person and the conscience would not be subject to legal penalties for their refusal to serve such persons. Although it was passed by the Arkansas House of Representatives it did not receive the votes it needed in the Senate Judiciary Committee to get it to the full senate. Although it may still get to the Senate it probably is of little importance since Arkansas has no law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Thus, it would seem, in Arkansas discrimination against gays is permitted without the benefit of new legislation.
Thanks to the invocation of religious conviction it is clear that prejudice in the United States is getting new life insofar as the LGBT community is concerned. It is acceptable to those promoting prejudice because they attribute their bigotry not to themselves but to the God by whom they pretend to be guided. It’s safe to say their God probably finds that surprising. He shouldn’t. Much of the evil that takes place around the world is done in the name of the God the perpetrators claim to worship. It must be hard on Him.
Christopher Brauchli is a lawyer in Boulder, Colorado.