8 April 2015: ‘Religious Liberty’ becoming new ‘States’Rights’

‘Religious Liberty’ becoming new ‘States’ Rights’

Over the course of American history the term “states’ rights” took on a pernicious and ominous connotation.  It became synonymous with discrimination and racial bigotry in that those who spoke about the rights of states to create their own laws without having to accede to federal authority did so with one purpose: to re-impose Jim Crow types of laws that effectively made African Americans second-class citizens.

States’ rights advocates bristled particularly at the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act as well as court decisions beginning with the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education that held ruled “separate but equal is inherently unequal.”

In like vein, those trying an end-around to circumvent laws and court decisions that secure the rights of women to control their reproductive systems, gays and lesbians to marriage equality, and others such as transgendered people to find true happiness are increasingly masquerading behind the notion of religious liberty.

While the idea of religious liberty strikes a resonating chord in the hearts of freedom-loving Americans, it, like the states’ rights argument, has taken on pernicious undertones.  In short, the recent campaign for religious liberty is the 21st-century version of states’ rights.  It’s becoming code for repression, bigotry, and down-right meanness.

When the Supreme Court struck down polygamy laws towards the end of 19th century, thus depriving the Mormons in the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints of “plural marriages,” it more than rejected an essential tenet of Mormonism; it effectively proclaimed the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of what is constitutional when it comes to conflicts between religions and government.  In other words, not all religious beliefs and practices are permissible if they conflict with the constitutional rights of church members as well as non-members.

Conservative religious bodies and their spokespersons are apoplectic and fulminating about the general societal acceptance of same-sex marriage reflected in both laws being enacted in states allowing for it and court decisions that inexorably will allow for universal same-sex marriage across the American landscape.

The problem is that while they certainly may maintain their fundamentalist and traditional holdings and practices that don’t allow for same-sex marriages, they find themselves in a pickle when it comes to their institutions’ and their members’ public business dealings.

Hence, social conservatives passed laws in Indiana and Arkansas that gave cover to private businesses that want to discriminate against individuals and groups they find morally objectionable.  In both states after their initial passages, the legislatures reconsidered and clarified their actions saying were not meant to be anti-gay/lesbian.  Those recantations, though, came only after considerable outcry, threats of boycotts, and other recriminations.

Business leaders, who tend to be Republican by nature by being Chamber of Commerce types, were upset with the whole scenario.  For them, their affiliation with the Republican Party is about economics not social issues.  Even Walmart, hardly a bastion of liberal progressive practice, asked Governor Hutchinson (R-AR) to veto the bill.

Religious liberty advocates, after feeling the heat, tried to backtrack claiming anti-gay/lesbian action was never their intent.  The facts, however, say other.  Case in point: When Democrats in the Indiana legislature offered an amendment to specifically exclude sexual orientation from the bills coverage, the Republican controlled senate voted 40-10 to reject it.

As Jonathan Cohn writes in his piece “Why Indiana’s religious freedom law is such a big deal” on the Huffington Post, “The whole point of the law is to make sure a shrinking, anxious minority can continue to conduct business in a way that the majority increasingly rejects.”

In addition, The Atlantic’s Garrett Epps observes in his column “What makes Indiana’s religious-freedom law different,” “Of all the state ‘religious freedom’ laws I have read, this new statute hints most strongly that it is there to be used as a means of excluding gays and same-sex couples from accessing employment, housing, and public accommodations on the same terms as other people.

“The statute shows every sign of having been carefully designed to put new obstacles in the path of equality; and it has been publicly sold with deceptive claims that it is ‘nothing new.’”

One outcome of these two fiascos is that the religious liberty charade, ostensibly based upon protecting religions’ First Amendment protections, has become exposed.  Rather than protecting rights, it is becoming a vehicle for repressing them.  States’ rights.  Religious Liberty.  Different vehicles but the same un-American outcome.

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