By Mike Appleton, Weekend Contributor
“This bill is not about allowing discrimination. This bill is about preventing discrimination against people who are clearly living out their faith.”
-Arizona State Sen. Steve Yarbrough (R), on SB 1062.
Assaults on the civil rights of homosexuals and the acceptance of gay marriage have been the focus of a number of state legislatures. The most recent lunacy is a bill in Arizona that now awaits action by Gov. Brewer. The bill amends sections of the Arizona Revised Statutes by incorporating provisions that effectively insulate many forms of grossly discriminatory conduct from legal consequence if done under the cloak of religion. This is accomplished in three steps. First, the bill defines “exercise of religion” to include “the ability to act or refusal to act in a manner substantially motivated by a religious belief, whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief.” Second, the bill expands the definition of “person” to include “any individual, association, partnership, corporation, church, religious assembly or institution, estate, trust, foundation or other legal entity.” I refer to this as the “Hobby Lobby” amendment. Finally, the bill prohibits, with a strict scrutiny exception, any “state action” that substantially burdens the free exercise of religion even if that state action is a law of general application.
I anticipate that the governor will veto this atrocity, not as a matter of constitutional principle, but out of concern that enactment of the law would further harm Arizona’s reputation and economic interests. But it is nonetheless disturbing that legislators would willingly employ a fundamental freedom as a weapon against a disfavored group of citizens.The legislation has been pushed by the usual suspects. Peter Sprigg, Senior Fellow for Policy Studies at the Family Research Council, has written a piece entitled “The Top Ten Harms of Same-Sex Marriage,” in which he claims, inter alia, that recognition of marital rights for gays threatens the religious liberty of “individual believers trying to live their lives in accordance with their faith not only at church, but at home, in their neighborhoods, and in the workplace.” That, of course, is merely another way of saying that Mr. Sprigg’s religious beliefs must prevail over yours in the event of a conflict, even to the point of requiring that you live somewhere other than where you may wish to live and work somewhere other than where you may wish to work. Mr. Sprigg, who was formerly the pastor of the Clifton Park Center Baptist Church in Clifton Park, New York, believes that tolerance is a synonym for endorsement.
Or consider the words of the Rev. H.M. Goodwin, who lamented the damage to “the unity of the family as a social organism,” striking “at the root of that which should be the first and foremost end of government to protect, the sacred unity of the Family.” Or perhaps don’t consider the words of Rev. Goodwin, because he wrote them in 1884 and the object of his outrage was actually the growing movement in support of women’s suffrage. In that same article, Rev. Goodwin complained of increasing secularism, an example of which was the removal of the Bible from public school classrooms at the instance of “Catholics and infidels.”
The history of this country is littered with appeals to God in defense of oppression. In 1822, Richard Furman, a church pastor in Charleston, South Carolina, wrote a letter to Gov. John Lyde Wilson claiming that slavery “is justifiable by the doctrine and example contained in Holy writ; and is, therefore, consistent with Christian uprightness, both in sentiment and conduct.” That argument became discredited through time and the Civil War, of course, but its legacy was a system of laws that persisted for decades until intervention by the courts, an intervention that the late religious leader W.A. Criswell decried as “a denial of all that we believe in” fomented by proponents of racial integration which he labeled “a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up.”
The point is that every advance in the rights of man has had to overcome preachers of hatred and theologians of exclusion. Every attempt to admit to the fullness of civic, political and social life a group previously rejected out of ignorance and fear has been resisted by those asserting sole possession of divine truth. And years later, after the battles have been won and the opponents are long since dead, their words are finally recognized for what they are, the intolerant rants of false prophets.
In April of 1965, Lester Maddox stood at the entrance to his Pickrick Restaurant in Atlanta, axe handle in hand, to block three black Georgia Tech students from entering. Mr. Maddox closed his restaurant later that summer rather than comply with court-ordered desegregation, but carried his views all the way to the Georgia governor’s mansion several years later.
In retrospect, Mr. Maddox made a tactical error. Instead of the same old tired arguments about property rights and federalism, he should have cited the Free Exercise Clause. He should have argued that his sincerely held religious beliefs prohibited his serving a ham sandwich to the children of Ham. Or perhaps he should have moved his restaurant to Arizona, where politicians have determined that religious balkanization is a healthy trend and that religious extremism in the defense of bigotry is no vice.
Sources: Goodwin, H.M., “Women’s Suffrage,” The New Englander,” No. CLXXIX (March, 1884); Freeman, Curtis, ” ‘ Never Had I Been So Blind’: W.A. Criswell’s ‘Change’ on Racial Segregation,” Journal of Southern Religion, Vol. X (2007); Sprigg, Peter, “The Top Ten Harms of Same-Sex Marriage,” Family Research Council (2011).