Liberty and justice for all?

In answer to the recent wave of federal and state court rulings in favor of gay marriage rights, conservative pushback has mounted in the form of Republican sponsored bills that—should they become law—would redefine the very meaning of “religious rights” in the United States.

In 15 states—or nearly a third of the country—state lawmakers have proposed right-to-discriminate measures that would allow business owners to deny service to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) customers on religious grounds. The catalyst for this flood of discriminatory legislation seems to have been a number of recent court cases that were decided in favor of LGBT clients who were denied wedding services.

Last month, Arizona lawmakers passed a bill that would allow businesses in the state to turn away LGBT customers. Although it was ultimately vetoed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, legislators’ in a number of other states, including Kansas, Tennessee, Idaho, Nevada, and Colorado, have sponsored similar bills.

The most far reaching of these measures, Idaho’s, would allow any private employer or business to refuse service to LGBT individuals. The law would apply to both private employers and government workers. In the name of “free exercise of religion,” the bill forbids any “occupational licensing board or government subdivision” to “deny, revoke or suspend a person’s professional or occupational license” for denying service to gay people.

The moral heinousness of such laws, with their echoes of a racially segregated, Jim Crow-era America, should be obvious to anyone with any sense of history or decency. While lawmakers have touted the bills as a way to protect the religious rights of storeowners, the measures have drawn the ire of many in the small business community, who have noted the financial pall that would be cast by offending a large community of customers.

The highest court in our country has also spoken out on the issue, as far back as the mid-19th century. The “Free Exercise Clause” of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution states that Congress cannot “prohibit the free exercise” of religious practices. The Supreme Court of the United States has consistently held, however, that the right to free exercise of religion is not absolute. In 1879 the Supreme Court upheld the criminal conviction of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints under a federal law banning polygamy. The Court stated that “Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices.”

Apart from the moral and legal arguments against such laws, one also has to wonder if those backing these measures have fully thought out their possibly unforeseen consequences. Would these lawmakers’ championing of religious rights extend to the Muslim storeowner who decides to turn away Christian and Jewish customers, or the Scientologist who boots from his store anyone who has not been properly ‘audited’?

Politicians have long used fear—of the foreigner, the outsider, the other— as a means to garner votes. Much like the restrictive voting rights and anti-abortion bills that followed the 2010 midterm elections, however, the latest round of attempts to turn back the social calendar seem increasingly like the last, sad gasps of a radicalized, frightened minority threatened by any facet of humanity that does not conform to their own, restricted worldview.

It’s likely there will always be discrimination in some form, simply because human beings are biologically hardwired to mistrust those outside of their own racial, sexual, and socio-economic “tribe.” But in our laws, if not our emotions, we must strive to rise above human pettiness and cruelty. To paraphrase a much quoted observation, the rules that govern our society are one of the few things separating us from our less evolved, four-legged relatives in the animal kingdom.

With the volume and magnitude of crisis-level challenges facing our country—from climate change and substandard education systems to rising tensions with our old Cold War antagonists—the absurdity of our elected officials devoting their resources to dismantling the liberties of law abiding citizens should be recognized as a shameful waste of human brain power and taxpayer dollars.

Fighting to deny both basic civil rights and our country’s changing attitudes concerning acceptance and equality is both bad business and bad politics. It’s long past time our politicians understood that.

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