Friday, February 14, 2014

Virginia, Kentucky, Idaho, Indiana, Wyoming, Kansas, Nevada, Colorado: Things Are Popping Now on Gay-Rights Front in U.S.

So much is popping so quickly right now regarding questions of gay rights in the U.S., that it's almost impossible to keep up with all of the news. A quick (and probably very incomplete) précis:

1. Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen of Virginia struck down a constitutional amendment that Virginia voters approved eight years ago, banning marriage equality in the commonwealth. The ruling (pdf file) cites Abraham Lincoln on slavery as it insists,

Our Constitution declares that "all men" are created equal. Surely this means all of us.

2. This comes on the heels of a ruling in Virginia's daughter state, Kentucky, on Wednesday in which U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II declared that Kentucky's laws for gay citizens treat those citizens as different in "a way that demeans them." As Sarah Posner notes, Judge Heyburn's ruling specifically addresses the widely-touted "religious freedom" argument which maintains that not permitting some citizens to discriminate against other citizens when their conscience mandates such discrimination violates the religious freedom of those who want to discriminate.

Judge Heyburn looks back to the way in which that very same "religious freedom" argument was pushed by white Southerners claiming a right to discriminate in the South prior to integration:

For years, many states had a tradition of segregation and even articulated reasons why it created a better, more stable society. In time, even the most strident supporters of these views understood that they could not enforce their particular moral views to the detriment of another’s constitutional rights.

3. In Idaho on Monday, the state's supreme court handed down a unanimous ruling that same-sex couples have a right to adopt children, striking down a ruling by a magistrate this past summer that a lesbian couple was not permitted to adopt.

4. In Indiana yesterday, the state senate chose to delay a statewide referendum on a constitutional ban on marriage equality for two years or longer, after the Indiana house passed the bill for the referendum last month.

5. In Wyoming yesterday, the house voted down a bill to permit marriage equality. As Timothy Kincaid notes, the vote was 41-to-17 against the bill, in a house in which Republicans hold 52 seats and Democrats hold 8. 

6. In Kansas yesterday, the Republican-dominated house voted through a bill that "explicitly protects religious individuals, groups and businesses that refuse services to same-sex couples." (And it's a mystery to me why CNN, to whose report about this vote I've just linked, calls Kansas governor Sam Brownback "a conservative Christian" when Brownback is a Catholic.)

As Mark Joseph Stern points out, the bill, which is expected to pass the Republican-dominated state senate and be signed into law by Brownback, will do the following:

When passed, the new law will allow any individual, group, or private business to refuse to serve gay couples if "it would be contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs." Private employers can continue to fire gay employees on account of their sexuality. Stores may deny gay couples goods and services because they are gay. Hotels can eject gay couples or deny them entry in the first place. Businesses that provide public accommodations—movie theaters, restaurants—can turn away gay couples at the door. And if a gay couple sues for discrimination, they won't just lose; they'll be forced to pay their opponent's attorney’s fees. As I've noted before, anti-gay businesses might as well put out signs alerting gay people that their business isn’t welcome. 
But that's just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to barring all anti-discrimination lawsuits against private employers, the new law permits government employees to deny service to gays in the name of "religious liberty." This is nothing new, but the sweep of Kansas' statute is breathtaking. Any government employee is given explicit permission to discriminate against gay couples—not just county clerks and DMV employees, but literally anyone who works for the state of Kansas. If a gay couple calls the police, an officer may refuse to help them if interacting with a gay couple violates his religious principles. State hospitals can turn away gay couples at the door and deny them treatment with impunity. Gay couples can be banned from public parks, public pools, anything that operates under the aegis of the Kansas state government.

And as Brian Beutler points out, the logic driving this horrific legislation is the same logic underlying the "religious freedom" crusade of various religious groups (the U.S. Catholic bishops at the forefront) who are pressing for the "right" of religious institutions and private businesses to refuse to comply with the Affordable Care Act's mandate to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees on grounds of conscience.

7. In Nevada on Monday, the attorney general and governor announced that they will not defend the state's ban on same-sex marriage when it goes before a federal appeals court, since the ban is "no longer defensible" after the 9th Circuit Court of Nevada ruled that gay citizens of the state cannot be excluded from juries due to their sexual orientation.

8. Meanwhile, in Colorado, where the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver is considering the appeals of those who contest the recent decisions of judges in Utah and Oklahoma to strike down those states' bans on marriage equality, guess who filed an amicus brief on Monday calling on the court to uphold the Utah and Oklahoma bans on marriage equality? The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Ethics &amp, Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod did so.

As Holly Welker notes at Religion Dispatches, the amicus brief was written by the lawyers of the USCCB and "Kirton | McConkie, the law firm that represents the LDS church. (Its main office is located directly across South Temple Street from the Church Administration Building.)"

As I say, things are popping in the U.S. these days, vis-a-vis questions of gay rights. Brian Beutler is right, I think, to note that at least part of what's driving this movement to and fro is the bogus "religious-freedom" crusade to which many opponents of the Obama administration--including the Catholic bishops of the U.S.--have committed themselves. There's a logic built into this crusade, and it's inexorable, as Beutler indicates, that requires those who have made undermining the current administration a chief priority to attack gay citizens and the rights of those citizens in the name of religious freedom, as an extension of the attack on the Affordable Care Act and its contraceptive mandate.

And because the logic driving this current attack on gay rights is so similar to the logic that drove the attack of white citizens of the South on the rights of African-American citizens during my formative years, I'm strongly struck by--I'm very much impressed by--the arguments of Judges Wright Allen in Virginia and Heyburn in Kentucky that we've fought these fights before, and in that previous fight, we finally (and rightly) ruled off-limits the argument that some citizens of the U.S. ought to be allowed to discriminate against other citizens of the U.S. 

Because bible. Because conscience. Because religion. Because freedom.

The wretched experience of the American South vis-a-vis the human rights of people of color has something of great importance to teach the entire nation as we slog through questions about gay rights today. If the important people of the nation were only willing to listen to that experience . . . . 

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