Using religion as a sword of intolerance

Larry Levin, CEO and Publisher of the Jewish Light. 


Those who opposed laws that enabled the abolition of slavery, desegregation of schools, women’s suffrage, interracial marriage, the end of discrimination in the workplace and in business services, and now LGBT marriage, have one thing in common:

They’re on the same side of history — the wrong one.

Every time a group with innate characteristics seeks to be accorded equal rights under the law, there are resisters who consider themselves the keepers of all that’s traditional and right, and they far too often do so under the guise of religion.

Those who use religion as a sword in these instances claim that by forcing them to provide services or goods to those whose practices violate their own values, they are losing an important component of their freedom of observance rights.

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The issue du jour concerns proposed laws to allow businesses to deny service to customers on religious grounds. The clear targets of these bills are services and goods related to gay marriage. Those who don’t accept the institution want to be able to invoke their religious beliefs as a legal justification for their refusal.

The proposed laws take various forms. A bill adopted the Arizona Legislature was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer — no doubt worrying that signing it would cost her next year’s Super Bowl. That bill would have set up a judicial mechanism for assessing the legitimacy of the religious denial. A Kansas bill was approved in the lower house of that legislature but died in the state Senate; that one was more draconian, giving the refusal to serve a much stronger presumption of legitimacy.

And now in Missouri comes SB 916, a bill put forward by State Sen. Wayne Wallingford (R-Cape Girardeau), that would allow religion to be used as a basis for refusing service. As reported in the Springfield News-Leader

“Wallingford used the scenario of a baker or photographer who is asked to bake a cake or photograph a gay wedding, arguing they could potentially be sued if they refused to provide their services.

“ ‘That’s what I’m trying to avoid. I want to be able to accommodate both sides, which will put me in the middle probably in a very dangerous position,’ Wallingford said. ‘I don’t want to see discrimination against people on the job, but I don’t want to see discrimination against individuals that own their own companies.’”

Wallingford’s argument has a few problems. First, to our knowledge, there is no state law barring such discrimination in this context (though there ought to be), so under current law, his bill isn’t even required to support the conduct he thinks ought be lawful in the name of religious belief. So it is curious for a member of the Missouri Legislature, which is forever harping about how unnecessary laws ought not be adopted, to advocate for this bill. Second, there’s an incredible irony in the bill that is lost on Wallingford and his supporters. The way the bill is written, it ensures that the language will not be used to usurp other federal and state nondiscrimination laws. 

The irony? 

Those laws – protecting women, minorities, interracial marriage, and so on – were adopted to combat those who in prior generations used religion as an excuse to discriminate. So Wallingford and company are trying to hold the fort by distinguishing the current attempt to lawfully discriminate from those eschewed by governments of yore. 

I’m sure Wallingford would demur; when this stuff happens, the resisters so often pretend that religion had nothing to do with the transgressions of the past.

Let me disabuse you of that nonsense with one example. In the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case  Loving v. Virginia, in which interracial-marriage bans were struck down, here’s what the trial judge had previously said in upholding the law:

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

Um, that’s not from the Civil War era, folks; it’s from the 1950s.

Are we that myopic? Do we have such short memories that we fall for this over and over again, that we can’t remember what this felt like just a half century ago, before the Civil Rights Act was adopted? Do we not remember the lunch counter refusals, the backs of the bus, the separate bathrooms, all in the name of religion?

Do we not recall the same laws in Nazi Germany? Or the apartheid laws in South Africa?

Are we really that blind to injustice that we are continually doomed to repeat it, and to conjure up any and all reasons, including a benevolent deity, to reinforce our prejudices?

Look, we publish a newspaper that supports a Jewish community that comprises the very observant  to the secular. We get religious freedom, and we support it aggressively and persistently – the right to pray, the right to gather to pray, the right to erect places of worship, to evangelize and televangelize, raise money to support faith, disagree with other faiths, and so on and so forth.

But when the issue comes down to public service by businesses that serve others similarly situated, we draw the line, and we think the American people do, too. As the columnist E.J. Dionne wrote last week in the Washington Post, after pointing out that the distinction is borne out by polls:

“The public sees the difference between a church and a marketplace. Shouldn’t this be good news for religious people?”

Wallingford’s claim that his bill is a middle ground, by protecting business owners along with those who suffer from discrimination, is bogus. The Senate bill would reinforce old and hateful stereotypes and create different classes of customers just like in the past. That’s not good for the LGBT community, not good for the business climate in Missouri, and it’s just plainly and simply the wrong thing to do.