History Repeats Itself: Discrimination Under the Mantle of “Freedom of Religion”

Marriage Equality has been sweeping in the nation in the past few years.  Last count 37 States plus Washington, D.C. permit same sex couples the freedom to marry.  The 11th Circuit of Appeals has affirmed this right in Alabama, yet some Alabama officials have defied this order and continue to deny marriage licenses to eligible couples.

Although the fight for marriage equality has been pushing along full steam ahead, there are several areas where inequality and discrimination rear its ugly head.  Today news has spread of a new law passed in Indiana.  Governor Mike Pence signed the “religious freedom” bill which on its face “prohibits state or local governments from substantially burdening a person’s ability to exercise their religion — unless the government can show that it has a compelling interest and that the action is the least-restrictive means of achieving it.”(http://www.indystar.com/story/news/politics/2015/03/25/gov-mike-pence-sign-religious-freedom-bill-thursday/70448858/).  Going into effect July 1, according to Governor Pence the purpose is not to “discriminate” but to ensure that business and individuals will not be forced to go against the free exercise of their religion.

On its face, there does not seem to be anything wrong with the new law. The Freedom to Exercise is a cornerstone of our constitutional rights.  It is enshrined in the First Amendment. SO WHY THE LAW? When one digs deeper, there are states and municipalities that specifically forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.  A knee jerk reaction has been to proclaim that refusing goods, services, housing, or even protection in schools to those who identify in certain ways is a matter of protecting individual beliefs and not discriminating.  In many places across the country, an individual or business can discriminate against someone on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.  For example, in WV despite the right to marriage, it is perfectly legal in many parts of the state to discriminate on the grounds of gender identity or sexual orientation.  The WV Legislature failed to approve a bill that would have brought the company Uber to the state, largely in part due to the company’s non-discrimination policy.

No matter how one characterizes it, “freedom of religious expression” does not mean freedom to use my restrictive view of religion to deny you opportunity, employment, housing, or protection from violent and reprehensible behavior.  We need laws to protect those in the minority position from being abused and disenfranchised on the basis of state supported prejudice.  America, we have already been here.  Whether it is a lunch counter in North Carolina or an apartment complex in Indiana, we have already done this.  Must we explain to you again that you cannot deprive people because you just don’t like them, or do not approve of their lifestyle?  It isn’t ok.  This isn’t how this works at all.  Freedom and democracy does not give anyone the right to deprive another.  Not in America. Our Constitution is not just color blind.  The rationale provided for discriminating and depriving equal rights to those on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity were used to deny access on the basis of race, gender, and national origin.  Governor Pence and friends can use whatever cute euphemism they like, but “freedom of religious expression” in context is a palatable way of saying freedom to discriminate. Under the guise of religious liberty people in positions of power and authority have sought to subjugate those who are different from them.

Ask yourself, how does serving someone a plate of food or selling someone a car interfere with your personal religious beliefs. Business is Business and discrimination is bad economic policy.  Given your strict adherence to religious tenets, are you denying services to divorced people or single mothers? Wait you can’t do that. Familial status is protected. That isn’t the promise of our Constitution. We have the freedom of religious expression as well as freedom from religious oppression. Do not sully the integrity and progress of our great democracy with pretentious and sophomoric bills and laws.


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