Race to the Bottom

Jewish Light Editorial

It’s a massive disappointment that the Illinois same-sex marriage law failed. It’s even more disappointing that this happened largely due to the actions of some African-American church leaders who apparently believe it’s acceptable for individuals to be denied equal treatment under the law based on sexual orientation.

The Illinois House of Representatives failed to pass bill, which would have built upon the state’s civil union law to provide many benefits currently denied the LGBT population of Illinois. After state Senate approval and despite acknowledgment from Gov. Pat Quinn that he would sign the law if passed, there were plenty of votes available in the Democratic House caucus to approve the bill.

Yet under clerical pressure, the proposed legislation met its death as various representatives were faced with the threat of withholding of endorsements, or even of support for their opponents, in future elections. Given the historic shameful treatment of African-Americans by our state and federal governments, it is both ironic and unfortunate that this treatment would issue, in the Land of Lincoln to boot.

Civil rights laws are aptly named, protecting individuals and classes in the public arena that may not have the political clout to protect themselves. Such laws not only serve as insulation from the power of the majority, but from one group imposing its particular brand of morality on all. They are, and must be, tied to a public good, not a religious one, and when they provide disparate protections and privileges, they negate one of the essential functions of government.


Examples of statutory racial marriage discrimination abound in history. In 1935, the Nazi party introduced new laws at the annual Nuremburg Rally, denying Jews the right to marry and conduct intimate relations with other Germans. In two laws enacted in South Africa in 1949 and 1950, interracial marriage was declared unlawful, and whites were subject to criminal prosecution for conducting sexual relations with those of other races.

So-called anti-miscegenation laws in the United States prohibited various races from intermarrying. The laws derived from majority beliefs that marriage and sexual relations between members of different ethnic or racial groups were morally reprehensible. In Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that such laws are unconstitutional, striking down statutes remaining on the books in almost a third of the states.

One might think that with this history of persecution, minorities in particular might understand the torment associated with governmental discrimination in marriage. Yet here’s the language of Bishop Larry Trotter, Presiding prelate of the New Century Fellowship International, in an ad presented by the African-American Clergy Coalition, as reported by the NBCChicago website:

“I…am opposed to same-sex marriage, as you and every Christian should be. Marriage is the first institution created by our God. He tells us in the word that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and not those of the same sex. I believe that God and his word is right. Don’t you?”

Honestly, Bishop Trotter, by asking what we think, you’re wholly missing the point. This isn’t about what religions can or can’t do, it’s about what government should do. And government should ensure that a class of individuals with a set of innate characteristics isn’t treated differently than another class. If this assurance doesn’t happen statutorily, as was attempted in Illinois, then it ought be remedied by judicial authority.

Why single out the Democratic African-American religious leadership when the law could have been passed if others had supported it? Because those groups who have been singled out for discrimination, mistreatment and societal cruelty are the ones who have the greatest responsibility to speak out in the face of basic unfairness and disparate treatment. That has been and remains a Jewish obligation, and it is the obligation of other minorities as well.

The governor suggested Illinoisans in the future would look back and wonder why the state was on the wrong side of history in 2013. We needn’t wait even a day longer to assert that the leaders who’ve condemned this bill are using a religious bully pulpit to quash civil rights protections for a significant chunk of the population. And that just isn’t right.