Monday, February 24, 2014

So-Called "Religious Liberty" Legislation Would Sanction Discrimination

It's an unfortunate fact that some businesses and service providers refuse to serve LGBTQ customers, citing an anti-gay interpretation of Christianity. From bakeries that refused to sell wedding cakes to same-sex couples, to a photographer who refused to snap wedding pictures for a gay wedding, to a hospital chaplain who reportedly refused to perform last rights for a gay patient, anti-gay business owners and service providers have often hidden behind religion when questioned about their discrimination. Now, the Religious Right is trying to protect such discrimination with a wave of new laws.

Several states are now considering new laws that would permit individuals, business owners, and organizations to discriminate against customers based on religious beliefs. These bills, championed as "religious liberty" measures by the right but likened to Jim Crow laws by critics, have been proposed in Idaho, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, and other states. Their appearance en masse in state legislatures is no coincidence. Evan Hurst, associate director of Truth Wins Out, told Mother Jones that the bills are "a concerted campaign that the religious Right has been hinting at for a couple of years now."

One such bill that garnered national attention was Kansas House Bill 2453. HB 2453 states that no individual or religious entity would be required to provide services, solemnize any marriage or partnership, or acknowledge any marriage or partnership as valid if doing so would conflict with "the sincerely held religious beliefs of the individual or religious entity regarding sex or gender". The bill was crafted by the American Religious Freedom Program, according to the Wichita Eagle.

The Kansas House passed the bill in a 72-to-49 vote, according to the New York Times, but it was later declared "dead" by Sen. Jeff King. King explained that the Kansas Senate Judiciary Committee had "grave concerns" about the bill's language, according to Time. The Associated Press reports that a Wichita-based Tea Party organization called Kansans for Liberty is trying to revive the bill.

National attention is now directed at Arizona Senate Bill 1062, which states that "state action shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion" except in special circumstances. In practice, the bill would allow business owners to refuse service to gays and other customers by citing their religious beliefs. SB 1062 was crafted by Alliance Defending Freedom and the Center for Arizona Policy, according to Religion News Service.

The Associated Press reports that the Arizona House voted 33-to-27 in favor of the bill, which has been sent to Gov. Jan Brewer. Brewer has yet to sign or veto the bill, telling reporters "I need to explore it."

Far right voices have commended the bill. In a February 21st press release, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins called SB 1062 "commonsense legislation" and praised the bill for affirming "the basic principle that the fundamental rights of free speech and the free exercise of religion do not stop at the exit door of your local church, and instead extend to every area of life." The Center for Arizona Policy claimed that the bill "makes important clarifications to ensure religious liberty is further protected in our state" in the midst of "increasing threats to religious liberty at all levels of government".

Other observers reject the bill as a green light for discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Hundreds of demonstrators protested against the bill in Phoenix, Tuscon, Flagstaff, and other Arizona cities on February 21st. Human Rights Campaign, Equality Arizona, and the ACLU of Arizona have released statements warning that SB 1062 would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ customers. Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, called SB 1062 "blatantly unconstitutional", telling the Los Angeles Times that the bill "violates the requirement of equal protection of the laws by openly singling out a particular group of people and saying it’s OK to discriminate against them.”

Several business and political leaders in the Copper State oppose SB 1062. Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, Arizona Treasurer Doug Ducey, and U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) want to see Gov. Brewer veto the bill. Business leaders on the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, and Visit Tuscon are concerned about the bill's impact on the Arizona economy. The Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Board has urged Gov. Brewer to veto the bill, arguing that enactment of the legislation would "raise serious Constitutional questions, spark protracted and costly legal action against the state, and ultimately have the effect of casting Arizona in a negative light that stands to damage our reputation nationwide and globally, and significantly harm our fiscal future."

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Why would anyone craft legislation sanctioning discrimination? How did discrimination become a "religious liberty" issue in the eyes of the Religious Right? Why would right-wing organizations craft bills that would be so offensive to voters, business leaders, and many lawmakers?

I don't think that the new wave of so-called "religious liberty" bills is really about liberty. Nor do I think that the bills are really about religion. After all, where is "Thou shall not bake cakes for gays" written in scripture? Rather, the bills are the Religious Right's latest attempt to delegitimize LGBTQ people and impose a far-right agenda via legislation.

The new wave of bills are a statement. In effect, they send the message that a right-wing interpretation of Christianity should trump the equality of all persons. The bills represent a troubling disregard for the rights of LGBTQ Americans, but I doubt their influence would stop at LGBTQ customers. I worry that, if signed into law, such legislation could set a precedent for denial of service to other groups on the basis of religious beliefs.

The bills are also rooted in the myth that fundamentalist Christians' religious liberty is under threat and in need of special legal protection. In reality, Christians are not being persecuted, and religious freedom is not under threat. Americans enjoy freedom of worship, assembly, and speech as these relate to faith, but this freedom does not give citizens carte blanche to discriminate.

We need to challenge rhetoric that falsely places religious liberty at odds with LGBTQ equality. Bills that sanction discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs are an affront to equality, and they do nothing to strengthen our liberty.

To read additional commentary, visit the following links.

The New Civil Rights Movement: Arizona Kicks Off Its Rainbow Shades

CNN: Arizona's shameful 'right to discriminate' bill

Time: Arizona Pizzeria Protests Anti-Gay Bill By Refusing To Serve Lawmakers

New York Daily News: New anti-gay bill proves Arizona is the land of dinosaurs — and bigots

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