Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Arkansas Anti-Gay "Religious Freedom" Legislation: My Update from the Ground

I see from the wonderful comments many of you left here yesterday and this morning that you've been busy, as I have, trying to keep atop the breaking news about the Arkansas anti-gay "religious freedom" bill (and the Indiana one). Since my last posting was about the situation in my state and how it affects me, and since many of you are clearly following news about the Arkansas legislation, I thought I'd offer my own update, from right on the ground in Little Rock, as it were.

Rachel Maddow's news report (the video at the top of the posting) interests me, because she actually knows Little Rock, having spent some time here, and, on the basis of her visits to the city, finds Little Rock "kind of awesome." As she notes, the movers and shakers of our community have been talking for some time now about creating a tech park in the center of Little Rock that would, they hope, attract hip young people and hip businesses in the high-tech sector to revitalize our decaying downtown and bring the community into the current millennium. 

Slowly, over the course of a few years, the city has created an attractive green space, an interlinking series of parks, along the Arkansas River, running from the Clinton library in the heart of the old city to its outskirts at an imposing mountain north and west of the city. It's designed to facilitate biking from one end of the city to the other, designed (in part) to appeal to the demographic that the tech park dream intends to target. Anchoring the parks and clustering around the Clinton library is an assortment of non-profits working for progressive social change and to alleviate human misery. The headquarters of Heifer International, for instance, are in this cluster of non-profits. Little Rock has, I'm told, one of the largest concentrations of such non-profts in the nation.

And now a bill sweeps through the Arkansas legislature that would, as Rachel notes, permit those trendy coffee shops about which the movers and shakers are dreaming, which would dot the new tech park development, to display signs in their windows saying, "Sorry, Folks, Gays Not Welcome Here. Bible." As Rachel asks (I'm summarizing the gist of her commentary rather than quoting her directly), "What were they thinking?!" When so much evidence demonstrates that 1) younger people, the demographic most likely to cotton to a tech park surrounded by green spaces, and 2) creative and educated people, would never move to such a community, what have the folks in the Arkansas legislature been thinking?

As some of your comments note, in his news conference yesterday noting that he wants the anti-gay "religious freedom" bill sent back to the legislature for a fix — to assure that it mirrors the federal RFRA — Governor Asa Hutchinson explicitly addressed the generational divide over these issues in Arkansas. Here's Suzi Parker reporting for Daily Beast (and see David Badash at New Civil Rights Movement): 

The controversy around the bill, which is similar to Indiana’s, has left many Arkansans exasperated and angry, and some have called it a modern-day Civil War. As Hutchinson said in his news conference on Wednesday, "It has divided families and there is clearly a generational gap. My son Seth signed the petition asking me, Dad, the governor, to veto this bill. It shows that there is a generational difference on these opinions."

Philip Bump at Washington Post thinks, in fact, that Asa Hutchinson's decision not to sign legislation he had previously stated he would certainly sign is a victory for Seth Hutchinson and his generation. Bump writes, 

The debate over religious freedom bills isn't only a debate over the rights of gay couples, but it has certainly become a proxy for that fight. Asa Hutchinson's generation is still the one in power, but it's Seth Hutchinson's generation that seems to be calling the shots on gay rights. 
Seth certainly won this battle. 

As Lindsey Millar notes for Arkansas Times, Seth Hutchinson is a community organizer in Austin, Texas, who has told Business Insider, "We must build a mass movement of Americans fighting for economic, environmental, and social justice if we want to see real progress." He is, in other words, precisely the kind of creative, educated young person a city that wants to have any kind of viable future in the 21st century wants to attract. 

(A side note: but isn't it interesting that Seth Hutchinson is in Austin, Texas, and not Little Rock, Arkansas? Before our state declares itself to be a new Jerusalem for educated young hipsters, it might want to take a look at the fact that, in contrast to the trend among millennials nationally, 70% or whom support marriage equality, only 30% of Arkansas millennials, whose educational levels are far below the national average and whose thinking on these issues is dominated by what they hear in their evangelical churches, do so. For a long time now, our best and brightest — including our gay best and brightest and straight allies of gay folks like Seth Hutchinson — have had no choice except to leave Arkansas, to find good jobs, and creative, tolerant communities. Austin has long been a draw for many of those folks.)

So yesterday Arkansas's governor, Asa Hutchinson, announced in his press conference about the anti-gay "religious freedom" legislation that he's sending the bill back to the legislature for a fix that will assure that it reflects the federal RFRA law. As Sarah Posner points out at Religion Dispatches, Hutchinson's announcement is tantamount to a flat admission that both the Indiana and Arkansas law — and the others like them now under consideration by state legislatures in many places — are not mirror images of the RFRA. They do something more; they open the door to discrimination against targeted minority communities by decreeing that private businesses have consciences and religious convictions and should be permitted to discriminate on the basis of those convictions.

Sarah Posner writes, 

Hutchinson has exposed fellow Republicans for their claim that these bills are the same as the federal RFRA. That has been the basis for RFRA supporters to argue that opponents are hysterically making outrageous claims about the potential uses of the new laws. Hutchinson has just admitted that bills' opponents are right.

I'd add that Hutchinson's comment is tantamount to an admission that these state-level laws are not needed, if their sole purpose is to mirror federal regulations. To speak of "fixing" them by making them adhered to the federal RFRA is to admit that they have never been about the federal RFRA in the least: their intent is to push the Hobby Lobby argument that private businesses are "persons" who sould be permitted to discriminate in the name of their consciences as far as they can push it. 

As Dana Liebelson comments for Huffington Post, 

The Arkansas legislation currently extends the definition of "person" to include corporations, granting for-profit businesses a right to religious exercise. The legislation also allows any "person" to cite religion rights as a defense or claim in a private lawsuit. 
Proponents of these laws contend that RFRAs are nothing new, arguing that the state has a compelling interest to prevent discrimination. However, the Indiana law and Arkansas legislation include new language that appears designed to respond to a 2013 lawsuit in New Mexico, where the state's Supreme Court ruled that a photographer who refused to serve a same-sex couple violated an anti-discrimination law. The court explicitly noted that New Mexico's RFRA did not protect businesses from lawsuits by private parties. (Federal circuit courts have recently been split on the matter.)

As Campbell Robertson reports for New York Times, the sponsor of Arkansas's anti-gay "religious freedom" bill, Representative Bob Ballinger, is still trying to sell the bill as a mirror image of RFRA, but the senator who presented it in that chamber of the house, Bart Hester, states precisely the opposite: 

But the senator who presented the bill in his chamber, Bart Hester, contradicted that. "Our bill certainly does not mirror to [sic] the federal R.F.R.A.," he said on Wednesday, using the acronym for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. "That was intentional."

And so now poor Governor Pence in Indiana finds himself, as Charles Pierce notes, high and dry, on an island of bigotry no one else, including the governor of Arkansas, who had previously been eager to sign his state's version of the Indiana legislation, wants to inhabit: 

Suddenly, Mike Pence, the bag of hammers who is for the moment governor of Indiana, wakes on a lovely day in Indianapolis and discovers that he's pretty much the sole occupant of the Bigot Archipelago. 
Georgia's version of this law likely has breathed its last. And, for a while, it looked like Arkansas was going to follow Indiana into the gorge of eternal peril. But then the CEO of Walmart announced that these religious liberty restoratives were inconsistent with Walmart's social conscience. (Apparently, he owns an electron microscope.) Then, in what I am certain is purely coincidental, Governor Asa Hutchinson not only came out in opposition to the Arkansas law, he threw it back into the legislature whence it had come to his desk.

As far as I'm concerned, Pierce puts his finger on what tipped the scales for Hutchinson, and will continue to tip the scales at a national level as these ALEC-driven bills are pushed in one state legislature after another: having seen the national hue and cry about what is happening in Indiana, and the pressure placed on that state by the business community, including its own conservative Republican business leaders, businesses everywhere do not want to touch such discrimination with a ten-foot pole. They are now and will continue to exert tremendous influence on Republican leaders who want to play to the right-wing evangelical base to tone down the bigotry.

It's bad for business.

As many of us in Arkansas are saying to each other after yesterday's press conference, however, we still have miles and miles to go before we sleep. Like many other states, Arkansas has no laws that prohibit discrimination against people on grounds of sexual orientation in the areas of housing, provision of medical services, employment, etc. And don't forget that one of the first things the current Republican-controlled Arkansas legislature did when it started its present session was to pass a law prohibiting any municipality in the state from enacting ordinances protecting LGBT folks from discrimination.

The story I told you here in February, about Steve's and my experience of going to a restaurant and being served our lunch after six tables that arrived later than we did: this happened before the current right-to-discriminate legislation was even on the table. It's perfectly legal behavior in Arkansas and many other places. As my posting tells you, when I told this story on Facebook, people told me of similar experiences in Atlanta and New Orleans. Something just like this has happened to Steve and me at a restaurant in Richmond.

And, you know what, I'd take that kind of discrimination in a heartbeat over the kind of discrimination I reported to you in a posting here last year, in which I told you of the refusal of a nurse in our city's Catholic hospital to give Steve doctor-ordered pain medicine after his hip replacement, and her retaliation when, in desperation to keep his pain under control, he complained about her refusal to follow doctor's orders. As I told you, she retaliated by taking an i.v. out of the refrigerator and squeezing the cold fluid rapidly into his veins as fast as she could. He tells me this was one of the most painful experiences of his life.

As I told you in that posting, it was very clear to us that this nurse was acting out of homophobic animus. She had made plain that she disapproved of my staying in the room two nights to assist Steve as he recovered. Steve did not tell me of this experience until some time after it occurred, and by that point, I did not think it was possible to file any kind of complaint — and I knew that we had no legal recourse if I did complain, in any case. Doctors to whom I've spoken about the feasibility of filing some report now, several years after this happened, tell me the report would almost certainly be ignored.

As this kind of thing happens to people in our state (one of our neighbors told us that the staff in the very same hospital refused to allow him to see his partner when the partner was critically ill, though he had and gave them his partner's power of attorney to permit such hospital visitation), I would not dream of turning to my Catholic church family for support, for refuge from discrimination. Have a look at the list of businesses, municipalities, and churches in Arkansas compiled here by DeathbyInches, and see if you spot a single Catholic church alongside the United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian churches announcing that they welcome everyone and do not discriminate against LGBT people.

If there's a Catholic church listed, I seem to have missed it.

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