Friday, February 20, 2015

New Battlefield for LGBT Rights: If I "Prayed About It," and if I "Believe" and Have a "Relationship with Jesus Christ," Your Rights Don't Count

German Lopez sees a new frontier opening in the battle for LGBT rights in the U.S., as the fight for the right of civil marriage appears to be winding down: 

The same-sex marriage battle is inching closer and closer to a victorious conclusion for LGBT advocates: it's now legal for same-sex couples to marry in 37 states and Washington, DC. But as marriage equality continues its spread from coast to coast, LGBT groups are beginning to prepare for what's next. 
If the recent actions of Republican lawmakers at the state level are any indication, the next fight will be a battle for the types of rights protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964
This year, Republicans in Kansas and Arkansas have moved to eliminate anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people. And this looks to be the beginning of a similar movement across the country: at least seven other states are considering legislation that would, at some level, allow discrimination against LGBT individuals.

I'm struck by the observation that what's happening right now in Kansas and Arkansas looks to be the beginning of a similar movement across the country. This is a point I've sought to make in one posting after another in the past few days (see here, here, here, and here), as I talk about the right-to-discriminate bill recently passed by the legislature of my home state of Arkansas.

As I've said, I suspect that this bill is part of a well-strategized ploy on the part of powerful interest groups with deep ties to the leadership structures of the national business community — which remains conspicuously silent about the right-to-discriminate legislation in Arkansas. It cannot be accidental that one action after another like this is now taking place in state after state following last fall's GOP sweep. This is an orchestrated development. It appears to me that the hope of many business leaders, including ones who have previously professed to support LGBT rights, is to see if the Arkansas model and others like it can provide a template for rolling back gay rights at the state level — and in this way, chipping at workers' rights in general.

You heard it here: we're going to see more and more stories now like the one to which Leah alerted us in comments here yesterday, in which a Detroit-area doctor, Dr. Vesna Roi, informed the parents of a six-day-old little girl — Kristi and Jami Contreras, a lesbian couple — that she could not treat their baby because she had "prayed about it." Marisa Taylor tells the story for Al Jazeera

The subtext of this story is loud and clear: if I "pray about it" and my religion tells me I should not respect your rights, you simply do not have rights. This is what Baronelle Stutzman, the Washington florist who has refused to sell flowers to a same-sex couple as they prepared for a wedding, has insisted in her defense: "My relationship with Jesus Christ" does not allow me to respect your rights or Washington laws that prohibit such discrimination. 

The Washington superior court judge who heard Stutzman's case and issued a ruling this week begged to differ: as the AP/CBS News report about this case to which I've just linked notes, Judge Alex Ekstrom informed Stutzman and her legal counsel,

The Courts have confirmed the power of the Legislative Branch to prohibit conduct it deems discriminatory, even where the motivation for that conduct is grounded in religious belief.

Saying "I believe" or "I prayed about it" cuts no ice in a well-functioning pluralistic secular democracy. "Believing" or "praying about it" — claiming religious warrant to discriminate — does not permit you to to flout laws that prohibit discrimination in how you conduct your business or professional practice. You can, if you choose, believe that the moon is made of green cheese or that dinosaurs cavorted with Adam and Eve, but believing this does not give you the right to translate your peculiar beliefs into discrimination that targets members of a minority community you despise —not as long as we do not live in a theocracy run by your particular cult. 

It is, of course, precisely the intent of the authors of the new iteration of the Manhattan Declaration that First Things has just published to give cover to people like Baronelle Stutzman and Vesna Roi. As Bill Berkowitz notes, the intent of the right-wing evangelical and Catholic anti-gay activists who have issued this new Manhattan-Declaration-style culture-war manifesto about gay rights is to argue that religious faith must be a warrant for discrimination.

If I "believe" it, if I have "prayed about it," if I have a "relationship with Jesus Christ," then I have the right to ignore your rights, when I judge that my religious faith dictates that I do so. Those issuing such manifestoes know that they already have cover for such arguments at the level of the national Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case, which stressed that it was not the accuracy of the anti-contraceptive beliefs of Hobby Lobby's owners the Green family that matters: it's the fact that those beliefs are sincerely held. The court noted that it has no business adjudicating factual claims about contraceptives and abortifacients. What counts is what people say they believe about these matters, and whether those beliefs appear to be sincere.

Especially when said believers have scads of money and political clout.

This nonsense lays a pseudo-legal foundation for what Stutzman and Roi have sought to do, and it lays a foundation for the kinds of laws we're now seeing roll out of legislatures like the Arkansas legislature. It opens the door for people to claim that the sincerity of their religious belief that gay = wrong must permit them to deny services and goods to gay people that they are required by law to provide for everyone else in the world, without bias due to race, national origin, gender, etc.

Look for much more of this kind of thing to happen in the months to come. German Lopez is correct to predict that this is going to be the new battlefield for human rights for LGBT people in the U.S. And as this new phase of the battle against the rights of LGBT people gets underway, as Michelangelo Signorile points out, the leaders of the gay community in the U.S. are not prepared to deal with it. Their focus has been singularly on attaining the right of civil marriage for gay citizens of the nation, while, at the local level throughout much of the nation, many of us who are LGBT live with no legal protection whatsoever against discrimination in the areas of housing, employment, provision of medical services, etc. 

In a state that has no laws of any kind prohibiting discrimination against LGBT citizens, Arkansas hardly needs a right-to-discriminate bill. That right is already in place. What the bill proclaims is that people who claim that they "have prayed" or "believe" or have a "relationship with Jesus Christ" have new warrant to use their religious faith to attack a minority group they want to demean. And powerful forces in many places in the U.S. right now want to see this warrant go national.

The graphic is from Mark at the Slap Upside the Head blog site

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