POV: Religion Cannot Excuse Discrimination
Antigay laws in Arizona, elsewhere will flunk history’s scrutiny
In recent weeks, the Arizona legislature passed a bill that would allow businesses to discriminate against sexual minorities based on the business owner’s religious beliefs. Ostensibly designed to protect an individual’s religious beliefs, the law would protect a bakery, for example, that refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony. While Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, vetoed the bill, a similar measure has been proposed in Missouri and other states. As quoted in USA Today, the sponsor of the Missouri bill, State Senator Wayne Wallingford, said, “There’s discrimination kind of on both sides. I certainly don’t want any discrimination in the workforce….But I’m also concerned about discrimination going the other direction.”
Wallingford expressed concern about “discrimination kind of on both sides,” but in fact, neither Missouri nor Arizona protects the rights of their LGBT citizens—lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered. Right now, in those states, as well as 27 others, LGBT citizens have no protections against discrimination. An employer in these 29 states, including Arizona and Missouri, can fire an individual simply because she is a lesbian. A restaurant or bar in these states already can refuse to serve a customer because he is gay, and as of now, a baker need not bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. So why the perceived need for these laws?
Perhaps these legislators are making a statement, indicating that in their states, religious beliefs trump the rights of LGBT citizens. Perhaps the legislators are pandering to the antigay sentiments of their constituents. Regardless of motive, while these laws will have no practical effect in these states, they will send out a powerful message, namely, that discriminating against LGBT citizens, if religiously motivated, is protected by state law.
In fact, religious beliefs have formed the basis for much of the antigay sentiment in the United States and elsewhere. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) was the largest backer of Proposition 8 in California, the referendum that (temporarily) banned same-sex marriage. More ominously, evangelical groups are behind the antigay legislation just signed into law by Uganda’s president. The Uganda law punishes certain homosexual acts with life in prison.
Those who rely on religious beliefs to argue against equal rights for LGBT citizens are the latest in a long line of folks who have relied on religion to justify discrimination. The Southern Baptist Church found biblical support for slavery and segregation. Based on its own reading of the Bible, the Mormon Church did not grant its black members the right to fully participate in the church until 1978. The Dutch Reformed Church did not renounce its biblically based support for apartheid until 1998. The lesson here is that religious support for discrimination does not justify the discrimination nor immunize it from attack.
Today, in the United States, a business owner who refused to serve an African American customer based on religious beliefs would receive little public support. Likewise, no public outcry would arise in favor of the baker who refused to bake a cake for an interracial wedding. That sort of discrimination is universally condemned, yet discrimination against LGBT Americans is justified by relying on religion.
Supporters of the bills in Arizona and Missouri worry about the religious rights of their constituents, yet no antidiscrimination law could force a Catholic priest to perform a same-sex marriage or require a Southern Baptist church to accept a lesbian minister. The First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion would protect these organizations from compromising their religious beliefs. Moreover, those states that have passed laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation have included exemptions for religious organizations. The situations targeted by the Arizona law and the Missouri bill are different, however. These laws seek to countenance discrimination by a business that is already subject to numerous state and federal laws that restrict the business’ ability to discriminate in other contexts.
Then why pass these laws, laws that will have no practical effect? In many parts of the country, equal rights for LGBT Americans is not yet a majority viewpoint. I say “not yet” because, as with discrimination against African Americans, discrimination against LGBT Americans will, in time, be universally condemned. Those who propose laws that protect the right to discriminate will be relegated to the by-now overflowing dustbin of history. They will fall on the wrong side of a battle for equal rights that has been fought in America since its founding.
Robert Volk (LAW’78), a School of Law associate professor and director of LAW’s Legal Writing and Appellate Advocacy Program, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at email@example.com.