Tag Archives: civil rights

Georgia On My Mind

Can we talk about Americans’ widespread confusion over religious liberty?

Georgia lawmakers recently approved a bill that says church officials can refuse to perform gay marriages. (Evidently, supporters of the so-called “Pastor Protection Act” do know that religious leaders already have that protection under the First Amendment, but they argue that passage of the measure will “reassure them.”)

The “Pastor Protection Act” was one of at least eight other bills pending in the Georgia legislature sponsored by opponents of same-sex marriages. They included Georgia’s very own RFRA, which is headed for passage over the vocal objections of state business leaders. Georgia’s RFRA already prompted 373k, a Decatur-based telecom startup, to announce it would relocate to Nevada; yesterday, it generated an editorial about state-level RFRAs in the New York Times:

These brazen measures, going beyond the Indiana law, would create blanket protection for discrimination. That these states would consider such legislation is all the more remarkable given the damage Indiana’s image and economy suffered in the national backlash to its law.

One of the most alarming bills comes out of Georgia, where state lawmakers have cobbled together a dangerous piece of legislation that would prohibit the government from punishing anyone or anything — individuals; businesses; and nonprofit groups, including those that receive taxpayer funds — for discrimination, so long as they claim it was based on their religious views of marriage.

 We’ve seen this movie before.

Decades of foot-dragging in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education was nothing short of scandalous; resistance to the 1964 Civil Rights Act continues to this day, and now, in the.wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, states like Georgia, West Virginia and Indiana—among others—are engaging in the same sorts of behaviors that followed those previous extensions of equal rights.

In fact, what we are seeing from “religious” folks today is strikingly similar to “religious” arguments against civil rights protections for African-Americans in 1964. Then, the argument was “my religion teaches that the races are to be kept separate, so requiring my bakery or shoe store to serve black customers would deny me religious freedom.”

So what is the First Amendment right to religious freedom? How extensive is it? What does it protect?

As I tell my students, religious freedom means you have the absolute right to believe anything you want. Jesus, Zeus, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or nothing at all—it’s entirely up to you. And your church or synagogue or coven can preach about those beliefs, reject participation in events offensive to those beliefs, and even hire and fire certain employees based upon religious doctrine.

When it comes to acting on the basis of your beliefs, however, the law erects some limits. You can sincerely, deeply believe that you should sacrifice your first-born, or that prayer, not medical intervention, will cure your child’s serious disease, but you are not allowed to act on those beliefs. (You can refuse medical care for yourself, but not for your minor child.) You can believe that your God wants you to rob that bank, or use drugs, or copulate in the middle of the street, but no matter how sincere your belief, government isn’t going to go along.

Except in very rare cases, religious belief does not exempt individuals from what the courts call “laws of general application.”

Here’s the deal: when you open a business, government provides the streets and sidewalks your customers use to access that business. Police and fire departments protect it from harm. When your toilets flush, government sewers remove the excrement.  In many areas, government picks up your trash and provides public transportation for your customers and employees. In return for these and other services, government expects you to do two things: pay your taxes and obey the laws.

Including civil rights laws. Even if you live in Georgia, or Indiana.

 

 

 

 

 

Guns, Gays and Greenhouse Gases…Welcome to Indiana’s Legislature

I don’t know about the rest of you, but when Indiana’s (mercifully part-time) legislature is in session, I tend to break out in hives. Thanks to our massively gerrymandered election map, a number of people who get elected to that august body tend to advocate measures that don’t reflect the opinions of most Hoosiers.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, in many cases, Indiana’s lawmakers’ actual constituencies are the special interests–the NRA and gun manufacturers, the Christian Right, Big Agriculture….

A quick look at some of the bills being considered this year may illustrate the point:

Let’s start with guns. Every year, guns kill some 33,000 Americans. The Indiana General Assembly isn’t deterred by that number, or by repeated massacres of children and innocents. No siree. This year, bills have been introduced 1) to get rid of Indiana’s requirement of a license to carry a handgun, 2) to allow guns at public universities and state office buildings, and 3) to make it easier for repeat alcohol offenders to get a handgun license.

What could possibly go wrong?

I’ve posted previously about the reluctance of our lawmakers to just bite the bullet and admit that LGBT folks are citizens and taxpayers entitled to the same civil rights protections that apply to women, racial minorities and religious folks. (Although it has been sort of enjoyable to watch the discomfort of legislators who are used to doing the bidding of both the Religious Right and business interests—constituencies that are on opposite sides of this issue.)

Survey research has uniformly found a solid majority of Hoosiers favor adding “four words and a comma” to the state civil rights statute. Employers large and small are lobbying for that approach, and significant numbers of clergy and other representatives of faith communities have come out to support it–but our lawmakers have thus far been reluctant to incur the wrath of the small (but shrill and intensely homophobic) Christian Right.

Then there’s HB 1082, authored by Representative David Wolkins. Dubbed the “no more stringent than” bill, it would forbid Indiana agencies from making or enforcing any environmental rule that is more stringent than those established by the federal government. As the Palladium-Item noted

Indiana consistently ranks near the bottom of the states regarding environmental quality. If State Rep. David Wolkins, R-Winona Lake, has his way, Indiana will stay there.

As the Hoosier Environmental Council points out, the situation in Flint illustrates precisely those gaps in federal regulation that Indiana would be prevented from addressing under HB 1082: For example, under federal regulations, drinking water systems can continue to deliver lead-tainted water to households and businesses for up to 24 months while a variety of fixes are attempted. In 24 months, children’s health and cognitive abilities can be permanently damaged.

In fact, there are a number of areas where EPA regulations are considered weak, among them pollution from fracking, factory farm manure pits, and outdoor wood boilers. There are probably others.

Why would we want to prevent Indiana from addressing areas where federal regulations may prove to be inadequate for our needs? It isn’t as if the absence of a “no more stringent” bill would require the state to act. Why tie the hands of those charged with citizens’ public health and safety?

I’m sure a closer examination of the bills that have been introduced would uncover still others belonging to the category that I call “good god, what were they thinking?”

Maybe I should just drink until they go home….

Civil Rights and the Religious Right

Yesterday at the Indiana statehouse, hearings were held on three bills taking different approaches to GLBT civil rights. None of those bills as originally written actually extended civil rights protections to the gay community—at their best (which wasn’t particularly good), they were efforts to look like the state is protecting the rights of LGBT Hoosiers without actually doing so— efforts to avoid the wrath of both a business community that supports real civil rights protections, and the Christian Right, which most definitely does not.

Of course, some of our legislators aren’t even pretending.

When I went to bed last night (we’re old and I go to bed early), the worst of the measures, a bill that had been dubbed “super RFRA,” was dead (at least for the moment), and a hearing on the others was still going on. This morning, I learned that SB344–which will now move to the Senate floor, would repeal RFRA and replace it with”protections” neutered by religious exemptions.

Genuine extension of civil rights to the LGBT community would be simple: four words and a comma added to the Indiana law that currently protects people from being discriminated against on the basis of race, religion, gender, and national origin. (Interestingly, there aren’t religious exemptions to those categories: if your religion preaches separation of the races or subordination of women, tough. You still can’t fire black people or refuse to serve women.)The convoluted measure that emerged is pretty strong evidence that Indiana legislators really don’t want gays and lesbians (and definitely not transgender Hoosiers) to be treated as citizens entitled to equal treatment.

These legislators are in thrall to the diminishing number of fundamentalist religious activists who want to be able to pick on gay people without worrying about some law requiring owners of public accommodations to actually accommodate all members of the public.

Ironically, all these howls of religious righteousness, all this deference to the delicate religious sensibilities of Christian literalists, is taking place at the same time that leaders of those groups are displaying the highly selective nature of their religiosity. Yesterday, Jerry Falwell, Jr.—one of those who finds homosexuality to be an “abomination”— endorsed Donald Trump for President.

So let me get this straight (pun intended). Gay people—even the most exemplary gay people in long-term, loving relationships—are sinners not to be accorded civic equality or human dignity. But a three-time married megalomaniac who has repeatedly used bankruptcy laws to screw over his creditors, who has flaunted his sex life in the tabloids, who has separated poor people from their money in his casinos, lies constantly and has repeatedly exhibited the crudest racism, sexism and xenophobia—that man is entitled to your “Christian” approval and endorsement.

If there was ever any doubt, Falwell’s endorsement makes one thing clear: This pious insistence that religious objectors should be accorded “special rights” to discriminate isn’t theology. It isn’t based upon their (selective and convenient) reading of their bibles.

It’s bigotry. And our lawmakers should not accommodate it.

 

 

The More Things Change

The battle at the Indiana Statehouse over adding “four words and a comma” to the state civil rights law has brought back some interesting memories.

I first began writing a column for the Word, a newspaper serving Indiana’s gay community, some 25 years ago. I stopped when the Word changed ownership, but the new editor (an old friend) asked me to come back, and I agreed.

Then I did something else.

I went into my files and reviewed some of my earliest Word columns. That review left me with two contradictory impressions: how dramatically things have changed—and how little.

Here, for example, are excerpts from a column from the year 2000. Just 16 years ago.

My youngest son recently attended the wedding of two co-workers. It was a lovely affair—formal, at an expensive Chicago hotel, conducted with meticulous attention to detail.

The program book included a message from the bride and groom, reciting how enthusiastic they were to enter into wedded life together, how sure they were that matrimony was the right choice for them. In fact, they said, there was only one hesitation, one fact that gave rise to a certain reluctance to marry: the fact that others were legally prevented from doing likewise. It seemed unfair that the status of matrimony was available to them, a man and a woman, and not available to others merely because they were of the same gender. The message concluded with a request that those present, who had shared the happy day with this particular couple, work toward a time “when everyone can enter into the institution of marriage and have their union recognized by society and the state.”

I couldn’t help thinking about the implications of this simple, powerful statement….

What would happen to the pervasive bigotry against gays and lesbians if hundreds, then thousands, of heterosexuals added similar paragraphs to their wedding programs? What if every church and synagogue that believes in human dignity added such language to their bulletins? What if businesses catering to families advertised for business by interpreting “family” in an inclusive and affirming way?

That would change the world.

What a contrast I see between my son’s friends and the group of shrill and homophobic clerics who called a press conference in Washington last week to announce that God hates homosexuality…

I am confident that, if there is indeed a judgment day, a good and just God will offer a special place in heaven to the young couple whose love extended beyond each other to embrace the human community and all its members.

The real question is, how would that good and just God respond to those who used the name of the Lord to justify their hatreds and excuse their bigotries?

As we now know, what did “change the world” was the courage of thousands of LGBT people who refused to live dishonestly and who “came out”–often with the support of their families and allies, but sometimes in the face of enormous hostility.

Last year, marriage equality became the law of the land, and survey research tells us that solid majorities of Americans now endorse marriage equality and support the extension of full civil rights protections to the gay community.

What didn’t change, of course, is the fury of the religious extremists—including Indiana’s Governor—who continue to use their religions and their crabbed versions of Deity to justify homophobia and discrimination. They are out in force to keep the Indiana General Assembly from adding sexual orientation and gender identity to Indiana’s civil rights law. Their persistence is why the rest of us can’t rest.

Not yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is with the Fixation on Potties?

Oh, Indiana! You have so many virtues….and so many legislators with questionable reasoning abilities. The legislative session that just began promises to be a bonanza for those who enjoy black comedy and unintentional irony.

For those of us who want adult government, not so much.

A major focus of the upcoming session will be the effort to add four words and a comma to Indiana’s existing civil rights law.  In the aftermath of last year’s RFRA debacle, business and civic organizations have partnered with LGBT organizations and faith communities to lobby for the addition of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the existing list of things (race, religion, gender, etc.)that Hoosiers can’t use as reasons to discriminate against other people.

All of these characteristics should be totally irrelevant to an individual’s right to rent an apartment, enroll in an educational institution or buy goods and services in the marketplace.

Four words and a comma. It’s not rocket science.

Lawmakers who really do want to discriminate but want to pretend otherwise have come up with all manner of convoluted bills to allow disparate treatment to continue. Others have simply abandoned the pretense, offering proposals that, if passed, would tell the world that Hoosier Hospitality is a highly selective concept.

And the world has noticed. This is from Talking Points Memo:

An Indiana rep recently proposed a bill that would hit transgender individuals with a Class A misdemeanor if they used a public restroom that doesn’t conform to their gender at birth.

I can see the signs now: Before using this potty, please deposit your DNA sample with the attendant…..

The whole potty fixation is a mystery to me. I was just in New York—I know, a den of iniquity—and most of the public restrooms I used were “one at a time” facilities available to either gender. (If you’re really worried about who uses which toilet, I have a suggestion: Get a life!)

This bill should die a quick death. Last year, similar bills failed to pass in Kentucky, Florida, Nevada and Texas (hardly liberal bastions), and the Department of Justice has declared that restricting transgender students’ access to public restrooms amounts to sex discrimination under Title IX, but hey–this is Indiana.

Even Georgia doesn’t want to be “the next Indiana.” 

For a legislature dominated by self-described proponents of “limited government,” the bills submitted thus far certainly are a mixed bag. On the one hand, our “small government” Christian conservatives are proposing a bill that would effectively  outlaw abortions (no terminations after a heartbeat is detectable–about the same time most women find out they’re pregnant). On the other hand, it’s hard to square that “pro life” position with the bill allowing habitual drunks to buy guns, the bill removing the need to license guns, the bill to allow guns on college campuses…

Maybe they want to be able to shoot people they think are using the wrong potty?

In any case, if the “wrong toilet” and gun bills pass, I’m moving to a saner state….Evidently, there are a lot of them.