Sunday, March 02, 2014

Religious Exemption Laws

The following is the full text of an Op-Ed piece I wrote for LGBTQ Nation.  The edited version is available here. 

I’ve called myself an activist since coming out publicly at the University of Wyoming and joining the queer student group in the mid-nineties, and I really do try to stay calm.  Most GLBTQ folks can tell you that’s not always an easy task these days.  I like to think I’m pretty good at it, though.  In April 1999 I was a co-creator of Angel Action, the counter-protest against Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church.  Ten friends and I managed to stay calm and silent while standing mere feet away from a man I refer to as “a professional bigot.”  We stood in silence, wearing our most angelic smiles while Uncle Freddie made comments like “you have a dykey look about you” and “you have the whiff of brimstone about you.”  Maybe the wings made the difference.  When speaking to classes, I tell students that while they are bright, creative, and talented, I’m pretty sure they can’t say or ask anything that will be more offensive than what falls out of his mouth.  This week I’ve just about had it, though.

Being a gay activist in a conservative, predominantly rural setting requires a fair amount of patience and tact.  I have almost 20 years of experience in politely and respectfully framing my arguments so as not to offend the “other side” of the issue de jour.  Everyone has the right to their own opinion, right?  I try to follow the golden rule and give others the same respect I’m seeking.  I try to respond rather than react, and draw on my experiences in speech and debate to make reasoned statements supported by facts and examples.  Check your emotions at the door in the interests of creating a meaningful and productive dialogue.

This week I’m finding it unusually difficult to avoid the urge to scream at the seemingly endless parade of pundits and spin doctors tell me, in their most deferential and conciliatory tones, that the rash of proposed "religious protection" laws are not about discrimination.  Oh heavens no!  They're really just there to protect defenseless religious folk from the godless gays.  Like innocent business owners, who could be accused of discrimination, just for standing behind their deeply held religious views.  

Not surprisingly, they can provide no examples where this kind of hypothetical religious discrimination has occurred, though Anderson Cooper and other journalists have asked often and pointedly.  The response is that it might.  You know…tomorrow.  Or someday.  Nevermind that actual discrimination against GLBTQ people occurs daily and, in many places in the US, there’s no law preventing it.  But they want us to understand that they are NOT trying to discriminate.  I’ve been spinning my wheels trying to frame a response in my usual polite and respectful manner, and think I’ve finally landed on something appropriate.

“Bullshit.”  Apparently trying to play nice hasn’t worked, so it’s time to call it what it is.  Hate.  Discrimination.  Bigotry.  You can couch it in terms like “religious freedom” all you like, but it doesn’t make the emperor any less naked.  Perhaps we should look at some of the arguments being used.  In Virginia legislators spoke out against such an “abdominal” type of relationship, warning it will “pollute America.”  A Republican senator from Wisconsin said such marriages should be forbidden “simply because natural instinct revolts at it as wrong.”  Tennessee attorneys tell us such unions should be illegal because they are “distasteful to our people and unfit to produce the human race.”  And finally, a noted psychologist commented "I believe that the tendency to classify all persons who oppose gay marriage as 'prejudiced' is in itself a prejudice.  Nothing of any significance is gained by such a marriage."

If you’ve been watching or reading the news lately, these arguments probably sound pretty familiar.  They should, since they’ve been around for a long time.  They originally referred to interracial marriage, and the first three were made between 1863 and 1924.  That’s right, the logic being used to deny same-sex marriage dates back to the Civil War.  The last quote is from a brief in the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia which established interracial marriage as a fundamental right between two consenting adults.  Ironic that it sounds like chapter and verse from our current debate, doesn’t it?  “No, we’re not hateful people; you’re the ones discriminating against us because you don’t respect our religion.”  Would anyone today care to make the argument that allowing interracial marriage violates religious freedom?

The argument is that business owners shouldn’t have to deal with someone as long as their objection is on religious grounds.  “I shouldn’t have to bake a cake for a gay wedding because my church says it’s wrong.”  Would it be acceptable to say “I won’t bake a cake for a Catholic wedding because I’m Methodist?”  What about a Muslim baker who doesn’t want to bake a cake for a Christian wedding? 
We already dealt with the question of whether or not a business can deny service to someone based on the belief that they are immoral, inferior, or otherwise distasteful; we determined that you have to let EVERYONE sit at your lunch counter and it is NOT a violation of your rights.

Individuals enjoy a number of rights and liberties, including the freedom of religion.  Businesses are not individuals, however.  Your cake shop is not a Christian, though its owner might be.  It’s a building, and when you start a business in the private sector it becomes subject to another set of laws and responsibilities.  There are different city ordinances, health codes, and tax laws that are separate from those for individuals.  Your religion might look down on tax collectors, but ignoring sales tax is illegal.  Perhaps your faith tradition takes a dim view of women in the workplace, but to refuse to hire a qualified female applicant because of it is discrimination.

As a business owner you get to decide a lot of things.  You can decide which products and services you offer, what your hours will be, and whether or not you will be open on the Sabbath.  You can set your prices, pick your own advertising, and choose your own business cards.  But you do not get to pick and choose your customers.  When you hang out your shingle, you’re agreeing to play by a different set of rules than you’re used to.  One of those rules says you have to serve everyone equally.  You can’t turn them away because of the color of their skin, how many years they’ve been around, or which church they attend.  Sexual orientation is no different.  My money is just as green and your public business is, by law, open to ALL of the public, of which I am also a part.

So yes, I’m mad.  Mad as hell, in fact.  I’m tired of hearing that GLBTQ folk aren’t really being discriminated against.  I can’t get married to the person I love and, after going through a surrogacy process that nobody really knew how to “deal with,” I still have no guarantee that the courts will allow me to adopt her legally.  But by all means, remain convinced that writing the names of two men on the cake is on the same level of what my family faces daily.  It’s your right, and I WILL be the first person to defend your right to think that way.  But take the money and make the cake, because it’s fair and it’s the law, at least in select states.  Be glad for the business as our economy continues to recover.  If you can’t abide by the rules and serve all customers equally, please remember that you will be viewed through the same lens as those who ran customers away from their lunch counters, sometimes violently.  Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Even though I’m feeling fed up this week, I am also hopeful.  I am returning to calmness and an angelic smile with the aware that those trying to prevent equality are getting desperate.  Some of the voices speaking up against these laws are doing so for the first time.  Some are prominent Republicans with a history of voting against our community.  Some are religious leaders from denominations that haven’t always been welcoming.  As the legislation becomes more ridiculous, more people realize that their attitudes are only one or two steps removed.  When a lobbyist pushes legislation to ban gay players in the NFL, an organization that already includes sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy, a few more folks will make a comparison to Jackie Robinson when watching the nightly news.  They will realize that we already KNOW bills like these are hateful.  And ugly.  And beneath us.  We know because we’ve done this before, and at least some of us learned from those mistakes.  Wouldn’t you rather go the head of the class than sit in the corner wearing a dunce cap?

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