It was a rough day for bigotry, yesterday. First, a federal judge overturned the Texas constitutional amendment that reserved marriage to be between a man and woman. Then later in the day, Arizona governor Jan Brewer vetoed SB 1062, which was intended to protect “religious liberty.”
Unsurprisingly, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said he’d appeal to the conservative Fifth Circuit in due time. What is surprising is that he said, “The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled over and over again that states have the authority to define and regulate marriage.” The landmark SCOTUS case, Loving vs. Virginia, clearly stated that the state of Virginia did not have the right to define the marriage of an interracial couple as against the law. So, I’m a little shaky in understanding his reasoning. The only thing that interests me in the Texas case is what the thinking will be in the higher court and the logic that will function.
The irony is that, time after time, a conservative legislature enacts such a law, which just begs to be challenged and then a higher court tosses it out. Opponents often blame “judicial activism” and judges “ruling from the bench” when they don’t get their way in the decision. But it amuses me that it’s the states that get the most passionate about these laws that set themselves up to get the laws tossed.
The more interesting situation here is Arizona’s bill about “religious liberty.” American rhetoric employs words like “liberty” and “freedom” with gusto. They connote freedom for all as well as connoting some kind of direct line to the Founders, who archetypically embody “freedom.” But in this law’s case, it is not to preserve the freedom to hold particular beliefs or to voice those beliefs, but to put those beliefs in action, namely to withhold services from those with whom one disagrees, religiously.
While the law tacitly intended to preserve the religious liberty of businesses from having to interact with unwanted gays and lesbians, really the possibilities of religious liberty or endless. And that’s the greater issue. LGBTQI people are merely who are in the crosshairs right now. Discrimination backed by religious belief has no end.
It starts broadly. There is religious liberty from broad swatches of religious populations, Jews and Muslims, for instance. Religions that are easy to stereotype because they seem strange and culturally distant. But really, that’s the beginning, because it also includes for, say, the conservative Evangelical Protestant (who have been touting this law) owned business freedom from more familiar Christian groups, like Catholics or Lutherans or Presbyterians or Episcopalians or anyone they don’t theologically agree with. There is religious liberty to serve only those with whom a person agrees, religiously.
Freedom, here, is not merely freedom to discriminate, but also freedom from people considered religiously impure and deviant. Because there is no state religion, the burden of orthodoxy obviously falls upon the religiously free. Only the truly religiously free person, unfettered by law that requires equal treatment to others, can determine who should be treated at all. Without a state-backed ecclesiastic hierarchy, the individual is very free to make the sober and weighty decision of exclusion swiftly and directly, relying merely and solely upon his or her faithful understanding of orthodoxy for right conduct and belief. Such freedom is very efficient, immediately available, and can be enacted at a moment’s notice. Phew for that!
Don’t want to provide a cake for a gay wedding? No trouble! You’re free! Don’t want to provide a cake for a Catholic or Mormon or Pentecostal wedding? No problem! You’re free! Don’t want to provide a cake for a secular wedding? Nothing to stop you, free man! Religious liberty keeps you safe from everyone whose identities and beliefs you find threatening (as long as your fearfulness is sincere!) your freedom by their very existence and proximity.
These “religious liberty” laws are popping up in a number of legislatures and we’ll see more of them, soon. I think that they represent a mindset that understands the privilege of a particular religious belief system is now in question. Conservative religious people once enjoyed a safe status quo. Now, because cultural mores are shifting, they understand themselves as special victims which require protection. But protection from whom and for what? People who want the same treatment under the law that conservatives (until now) take for granted. Today’s threat are gays and lesbians. Last century it was African-Americans (and Irish-Americans and Italians-Americans and…). The century before, women. And all throughout there are immigrants. Immigrants, immigrants, immigrants (there are those Irish and Italians (CATHOLICS!), again). The least American of the lot.
The Pilgrims wanted religious freedom and they discriminated against anyone who didn’t agree with their understanding of being religiously free. That’s why Rhode Island came to be. It’s unsurprising to see religious conservatives plead for protection. It’s a scary world, full of diversity and dissimilar people and opinions. Spooky! What to do?
It goes to show that that this “religious freedom” issue is not just a threat to gay rights, but human rights, which is what gay rights is all about – to be treated as who gay people are: human. Religious freedom laws serve to delineate who one’s god understands as human and who should be treated as such. The reasoning goes like this: If God has ordained a group of people sinful and worthy of discrimination, then how can someone acting sincerely in “good faith” against those groups of people be legally culpable?
How hard it must be to be a slave to this religious freedom, to suffer the pains of serving a God by excluding people to preserve one’s own orthodox sensibilities! Why would anyone ever be expected to do toward others what they would want others to do to them? What’s the freedom in that?