Discrimination Isn’t ‘Religious Freedom’

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Donna Ladd

The logic behind SB 2681—Mississippi's so-called "religious freedom" bill—might almost work on some level if the people behind it were fixated on promiscuity. It hurts my brain, as well as my heart, to watch so-called religious people go after gays and lesbians who want to get married, settle down and raise children. It would at least make sense if these reformers were focused on people sneaking around and doing it in bar bathrooms (including heterosexuals). I still would not agree that government should be the morality police, but at least it would make a lick of sense.

It's similar to the people most adamantly opposed to abortion rights: So many of them (though not all, thankfully) are the same ones who then rail against welfare and public education and food stamps, CHIP assistance and any other public attempts to help poor children once they're actually born and at the risk of starving to death.

It's misplaced morality, in either case.

What also gets my goat is that backers of efforts like SB 2681 seem to think all the rest of us are stupid. Here in Mississippi, a couple of conservative preachers in the state Legislature introduced an innocuous-seeming bill that would add "In God We Trust" to the state seal. Now, anyone who understands the brilliance of the First Amendment can see that it is an establishment of religion by the government, but we also know that it is a relatively harmless one, compared with all the other ways some zealots want the government to force their religion on other people.

Then, come to find out, they were quietly trying to foist an innocently named "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" on Mississippi—one that could allow businesses and others to discriminate against people they believe are "sinful," whether by being openly gay or by seeking an abortion, or even using their hard-earned health insurance to buy birth-control pills, which remarkably are a target for these people in the year 2014.

Caught red-handed, the old-time preachers had to tone down the language of their bill a bit, but they still managed to get it passed, and with language so confusing that it's hard to know just how it will be used after it goes into effect July 1. (But considering that Gov. Phil Bryant invited Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, an ultra-conservative fixated on abortion and gays, down from Washington, D.C., for the private signing, we can imagine how.)

In recent weeks, the bill's backers—which have long included Focus on the Family and the ultra-conservative Rutherford Institute—have been in overdrive trying to justify the law, saying the "intent" is probably "not to keep gays away." Instead, we're assured, it's a way to protect the First Amendment—or at least the religious-freedom part. We might (and should) ask: From what?

If you dig deep into conservative writings on the need for laws such as 2681, the reasoning is almost always connected to getting governments to protect the right to discriminate against someone else based on a religious belief—just as Jim Crow laws supposedly did in our past, when the inferiority of non-whites was preached from about every white pulpit in Mississippi.

Go straight to the Focus on the Family website. The organization's judicial analyst, Bruce Hausknecht, lists various ways that Christians' rights are under "alarming erosion" without such a governmental backup plan. Of his 12 examples, seven concerned discriminating against LGBT people, mostly over same-sex marriage and adoption, and in four, he wants to deny abortion rights to others. One was about a public high school having a prayer at a graduation ceremony.

None of the examples was about a heterosexual Christian not being able to marry or adopt (or divorce) who they wanted, worship as they pleased or choose to have as many children as they wanted. In other words, the examples that one of the main lobbying organizations for these types of bills listed were not about anyone stopping someone from exercising and living by their own beliefs. They were about allowing people to punish or discriminate against other people who make different choices, including committing whatever the discriminators considered a sin—and with a government backup for punishing the sinner for exercising rights.

This completely misses the point of the First Amendment—or, quite honestly, the (better) reasons America was founded in the first place. (And, I would argue, the Bible.)

Freedom, as chiseled into the First Amendment, is about making individual choices without the government—or its chosen people—hurting us in response. Sadly, too many people do not read or quote the entire First Amendment. It is a brilliant balance beam supporting religious freedom on one end and forbidding the establishment of religion by the government on the other. The sweet spot is the result of both, right in the middle—the place where freedom lives.

The government is not to be used as a tool to ensure that any one religious group dominates America—to where so many of our ancestors fled due to state religious establishment and persecution in other countries. What is so genius is that there is no way that all Americans have religious freedom if the government is used to establish, or prefer, one religion over another. In fact, it is the "religious freedom" crowd that wishes to violate the Constitution: by defining who can exercise what religious beliefs. (Theirs.)

Thus, while you may really think it is vital that a student be able to say a Christian (or a Muslim) prayer over the loud speaker at a public-school graduation, it is anathema to American freedom (although each person there is welcome and free to say his or her own prayer any time they want).

The guarantee of religious freedom simply does not mean that someone can rely on their own religious beliefs to discriminate against someone they believe is sinful or non-Christian (or Muslim) or whatever—and violate the other's rights in the process. Too many states (and the federal government) allowed that back in the day, meaning that owners of bakeries and lunch counters and other businesses told themselves that it was their God-given right to refuse service to non-whites, and Lord help you if you were part of a mixed-race marriage.

Most of us look back now and see how horrible it was to twist beautiful religious texts to justify hatefulness. But still others want to use the same old tricks to try to use government to force their own beliefs on everyone else. The ultimate irony of that is what the authors of the First Amendment knew: It might seem to work out for the religion "in charge" for a while, but it will boomerang back when others start using their faith (or lack of one) to discriminate against them.

That is exactly why both clauses of the First Amendment are vital if either one of them is to work. Put it this way: You do not have religious freedom if every single American doesn't have it, too, including those you believe are heathens and sinners. And if you choose to earn your living by serving the public, you don't get to pick and choose who you do business with based on their race, religion, gender or who they choose to love.


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