State legislation pending the governor’s action in Arizona would allow individual businesses to discriminate against some customers based on personal religious beliefs.
The legislation is mainly designed to allow businesses, or individuals who work in a business, to deny services to gay people based on religious grounds. For example, a bakery could refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple if the baker exerts a religious exception.
No matter what one thinks about gay marriage, this kind of legislation is a bad idea. It injects a religious litmus test into our civil society in a way that could have many unintended consequences.
While designed specifically to allow discrimination against gays, this kind of legislation would actually allow all kinds of petty acts of discrimination in the public arena.
What would have happened during the civil rights era if a restaurant owner could have refused to serve black customers based on his personal religious beliefs? (And there were a lot of whites who, in the 1950s and 1960s, based their anti-black actions on religious grounds. If you go back further in history, many white Southerners claimed that the Bible supported slavery during the Civil War era. The invoking of religion has long been the excuse for all kinds of discrimination both in this country and around the world.)
Nominally supported by conservatives as a measure to “protect” religion from litigation, the Arizona legislation really doesn’t reflect true conservative values. While it’s designed to allow conservative Christians to refuse services to gays, it could also open the door for others to deny services to Christians, too.
On the surface, however, the bill appeals to those who want to wear their religious beliefs on their sleeves. There are a lot of conservative Christian groups who believe they are “under attack” by government policies. That’s especially true in public schools where timid and nutty administrators have greatly overreacted to displays of religious iconography during the Christmas season.
But those incidents, while getting a lot of publicity, are relatively few overall and an aberration of the norm. In the U.S., there is no big attack on Christians as some seem to believe.
The groups behind those kinds of claims are playing the victim card in an effort to rally support and raise money for their foundations.
If you want to see what real anti-Christian bias is all about, go to North Korea or the Middle East where Christians are tortured and killed for their beliefs.
Human history is rife with discrimination based on religion, skin color, gender and ethnic differences. Jews have long been persecuted in Europe and the Middle East. The English hated the Irish. Islamists hate Jews and Christians with equal disdain. Americans hated the Indians. Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Polish and many other groups have been the target of discrimination. And in every example, there are those who have wrapped themselves in some kind of religious blanket to proclaim their discrimination is really just divine providence.
The real question in the Arizona legislation is this: Do individuals who provide economic services to the public need legislation to protect their personal religious beliefs?
How, for example, does baking a cake for a gay couple defile the baker’s religion? The baker may not be gay or even like the fact that gays exist in the world, but are his personal beliefs being restricted or desecrated by the act of baking a cake? What about his religion is being “protected” in this legislation?
And how would that baker feel if while wearing a cross around his neck, he is refused service at a restaurant because the owner of the establishment didn’t like Christians? Once legislation opens the door to discrimination based on religious beliefs, that door would swing both ways.
And that’s what’s really troubling about this Arizona legislation; it injects religion into our civil society in a way that we’ve not seen for many decades. It encodes in law the right of one group of people to discriminate against other groups in the marketplace based on religion. That’s an amazing and very troubling precedent for a nation that prides itself on being egalitarian.
No civil society can exist if it is underpinned by legislated discriminations. Whatever our own personal religious beliefs, we all exist in this culture together. We don’t have to agree with or approve of each other, or like the choices made by those around us. We have to work with people who have different beliefs than we do.
Those who can’t adapt to that reality don’t need to participate in our society where they have to deal with people who are different than themselves. They should become a nun or a monk or join a cult of like-minded people. There’s no place in our culture for those who can’t accept the fact that all humans are different and that our survival depends on respecting those differences.
This nation should not lower itself to the likes of Russia and Uganda, both of which have passed anti-gay legislation in recent months, legislation that has led to violence against gays in those countries.
For the economy and our civil society to function, we have to be able to put personal and religious feelings aside when dealing with others. Our focus should not be about the petty things that make us different, but rather about those values that we have in common regardless of religion: Freedom, integrity, responsibility and respect.
To parse our religious differences in legislation goes against everything the American civil society stands for. It creates a nation of competing tribes rife with petty prejudices, misconceptions, injured feelings and civic unrest.
It was those kinds of things that our forefathers sought to leave behind when they fled other nations and founded this country. Mutual respect and forbearance has been at the center of our nation’s strength and makes us different than most other nations around the world.
The Arizona legislation that would allow discrimination based on religious beliefs contradicts those core American values.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers, Inc. He can be reached at email@example.com.