With LGBT rights activists winning court victories in state after state, the Christian Right has opened a new battlefield in the nation’s cultural war, and they’re leaving nothing behind in their effort to enact Jim Crow-era laws against gay Americans.
Taking inspiration from the Hobby Lobby case — a case that threatens to allow a corporation to invoke religion to exempt itself from a law (contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act) it doesn’t like — Republican lawmakers have pushed a slew of bills under the guise of “religious freedom.” This means businesses or individuals would be granted not only the right to deny services or employment to LGBT American, but also immunity against prosecution for discrimination.
Last week, Republicans in Kansas’ lower house passed a bill that would have effectively allowed Christian business owners or employees the right to deny service to same-sex couples. Think segregated restaurants in the Deep South prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and you’re drawing a mental picture of what the Christian Right hoped to achieve in Kansas. The language of the bill would have allowed restaurants, for instance, to deny service to “any marriage, domestic partnership,” or “civil union” that “would be contrary to the sincerely held religious beliefs of the individual or religious entity regarding sex or gender.” Thankfully, the bill was killed in the Senate. But Kansas was merely the opening salvo.
Republicans in Arizona, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Idaho, Ohio, Mississippi, and Oklahoma have now introduced bills that would also grant religious zealots the right the segregate their businesses against LGBT Americans. Significantly, all of these bills were introduced this year.
On Wednesday, the Arizona Senate passed a bill allowing religious-based discrimination. The bill now travels to the House where it’s expected to pass. “SB 1062 permits discrimination under the guise of religious freedom,” Senate Democratic Leader Anna Tovar said in a statement. “With the express consent of Republicans in this Legislature, many Arizonans will find themselves members of a separate and unequal class under this law because of their sexual orientation. This bill may also open the door to discriminate based on race, familial status, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability.”
“This is a deliberate strategy as gay people are getting greater rights, to take away those rights and be able to discriminate,” says Eunice Rho of the American Civil Liberties Union. “You can have marriage, but you have no right to the privileges that come with that.”
Evan Hurst, associate director of Truth Wins Out, a Chicago-based nonprofit that promotes gay rights, warns, “This is a concerted campaign that the religious right has been hinting at for a couple of years now. The fact that they're doing it Jim Crow-style is remarkable, considering the fact that one would think the GOP would like to be electable among people under 50 sometime in the near future."
While pushed by Republican lawmakers, a network of Christian Right advocate groups has handcrafted these discriminatory bills. Brian Walsh, executive director of the American Religious Freedom Program said in an interview with the Wichita Eagle, “We gave them [GOP lawmakers] suggestions and they took some of them.” Julie Lynde, executive director of Cornerstone Family Council, told Al Jazeera America, “We have been involved in working on the language of the Idaho bill.”
The Christian Right’s legislative activism in 2014 has been buoyed by a media wave of anti-same-sex marriage rhetoric. On Tuesday, Sen. Tex Cruz joined Family Research Council president Tony Perkins on Washington Watch. Cruz said the Obama administration’s support for LGBT equality represents an “abuse of power and lawlessness.” The Republican firebrand added, “We need to stand up and defend traditional marriage and especially do everything we can to prevent the federal government from forcing a different definition of marriage that is contrary to the views of the citizens of each state.”
On Wednesday, Sen. Mitch McConnell’s Tea Party primary challenger appeared on the Janet Mefferd Show to warn, absurdly, that same-sex marriage will lead to parent-child marriage. “If it’s all right to have same-sex marriages, why not define a marriage — because at the end of the day a lot of this ends up being taxes and who can visit who in the hospital and there’s other repressions and things that come with it — so a person may want to define themselves as being married to one of their children so that they can then in fact pass on certain things to that child financially and otherwise.”
The same day Brian Camenker of the anti-gay group MassResistance said on a right-wing radio program that gay rights advocates will kill kids and turn the U.S. into Nazi Germany, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and North Korea. Camenker called support for gay rights “insane” and like something out of the Soviet Union: “The homosexual movement does a good job of instilling that fear of harassing people and threatening them terribly so you don’t have anybody speaking out — we do — but when people start speaking out this whole house of cards will start to fall.”
On Tuesday, Pat Robertson said if murderers and thieves can be rehabilitated, then gays can, too. Tony Perkins said same-sex marriage perverts the word love.
While waging this concerted war on LGBT rights, the far right is painting itself as the victim. Last week, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal called efforts to overturn bans on gay marriage an assault on religious freedom. "It is a war — a silent war — but it is a war against religious liberty. This war is waged in our courts and in the halls of political power," Jindal says.
With polls showing a majority of Americans now favoring same-sex marriage, the Christian Right has focused its efforts on conflating discrimination with “religious discrimination.” These bills are discriminatory and hateful. These religious objections are nothing new. The Confederates invoked the Bible to defend slavery, and religious reasons were used to oppose the Civil Rights Act. Moreover, they run counter stance to the very principle of secular law, and this should trouble every American who cares about civil rights.