If Arizona legislators have their way, business owners will soon be able to deny services to people on the grounds that they’re wearing mixed fibers—a Biblical no-no—along with others who engage in activities contrary to their religious beliefs. Along with Georgia and Kansas, the state’s engaging in a campaign to enshrine discrimination in the law under the guise of “religious freedom,” a cherished USian right.
It’s safe to assume that business owners aren’t going to be terribly concerned about mixed fibers, people who eat shellfish, or those who work on the Sabbath. The real issue, of course, is same-gender couples with the audacity to expect access to public accommodations such as hotel rooms, restaurants and diners, and more. Under Arizona’s law, which governor Jan Brewer hasn’t signed, business owners would enjoy dangerously a high degree of flexibility when it comes to the right to refuse service, and queer couples would bear the brunt.
The battle over “religious freedom” laws in the US is highlighting a key culture war as the LGBQT community fights for basic equal rights (on the federal level, activists still haven’t succeeded in passing ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prevent employers from firing LGBQT employees on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity) while the religious community viciously fights back. The religious right may be losing the fight to ban marriage, with challenge after challenge felling homophobic laws and constitutional amendments, but it’s regrouping with another attempt to tackle the issue of LGBQT people running rampant in US society from a new angle.
In a nutshell, religious freedom laws may sound innocent: surely, business owners should have the right to refuse service to anyone (on the grounds of the right to free association enshrined in the Constitution), including people who violate their religious, ethical, or moral values, right? For example, the owners of a bookshop might not want to host a book club consisting of Klu Klux Klan members reading racist texts, while Black bakery owners might decline to serve a customer who comes in shrieking anti-gay and racist epithets on a regular basis.
Likewise, legislators and conservative Christians argue, devout Christians should be able to refuse service to people whom they find offensive. However, there’s a marked difference between refusing service to individuals who are being actively offensive—a customer abusing staff members, for example, or promoting hate speech—and a customer who is simply existing. Under Arizona’s religious freedom law, religious business owners would be able to refuse service to gay and lesbian couples as well as other individuals whom they disapprove of, regardless as to how they are behaving.
While there is a legal defense for people who do not wish to participate in same-gender weddings for religious reasons, as this would compel them to be involved with activities that run against their religious beliefs, this is radically different than providing a blanket get out of jail free card for people who wish to engage in religious bigotry. A religious officiant should be allowed to decline to perform a ceremony she opposes: a doctor shouldn’t be allowed to refuse life-saving surgery simply because a patient is gay. These laws also raise some critical practical questions: Will businesses now be asking people about their orientation, faith, and personal history in order to determine whether they wish to provide service? Will they help out prospective customers with signage at the door indicating their intent to discriminate on religious grounds?
A similar law in Kansas fortunately failed, but Georgia is charging full steam ahead with a version of its own. As in Kansas and Arizona, the bill is heavily influenced by conservative Christian organizations, who participated in the bill’s authorship and lobbied to push it through. This exposes the naked hypocrisy behind these “religious freedom” bills, which aren’t about religious freedom at all: they’re about conservative Christianity and the extremely small minority of extraordinarily bigoted Christians who would refuse paying customers to make a religious and political point.
Georgia’s law is particularly terrible, as the Anti-Defamation League has pointed out. In addition to allowing businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians, it would allow for refusal of an even wider range of services. Medical personnel, for example, could refuse to participate in a range of procedures including blood transfusions, in vitro fertilization, and other activities they claim violate religious faith, even in emergency situations. With protections already in place allowing providers to refuse to provide birth control or participate in abortions, the last thing minorities and women in particular need is more excuses to be denied care. Meanwhile, law enforcement could decline to respond to calls that run contrary to their religious convictions—imagine, for example, a member of the Aryan Nation serving on a police force and refusing to assist people of colour. (Said police force would be powerless to refuse to hire him, because it could be sued for…wait for it…discrimination.)
Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, and other religious groups aren’t exactly jumping forward to defend the bills or express appreciation for their proposal and passage, as they don’t have a particular interest in discriminating against customers on the basis of religious faith, identity, or “lifestyle,” as the Christian right is so fond of putting it. Many Christians are opposed to the bills, including those who point out that Jesus Himself often enjoyed the hospitality of others during his life, would have valued hospitality today, and took time to chat with the thieves crucified beside Him in the hours before his death. Many Republicans, including prominent party leaders like John McCain, have indicated that they don’t support the legislation either. In the face of so much opposition, one might expect the laws to sink like a lead balloon, but this hasn’t been the case.
The fact that the “religious freedom” bills enjoy almost no support beyond a very small percentage of the US population, yet are rising to such prominence, is illustrative of the stranglehold the religious right has on US politics. Despite the alleged separation of church and state in the US, religion-driven laws like this one are being used to further culture wars and endanger minority communities, turning discrimination into a protected legal right despite all Constitutional evidence and caselaw arguing the contrary.
Supporters claim this and other bills like it simply offer more protections to Christian businesses, but this is belied in their vague framing, which provides considerable license for discrimination. Especially given that many states already have religious freedom laws in place, and that freedom of religion is protected under the Constitution and federal law as well as caselaw, there’s no reason to pass additional legislation to offer “religious freedom” protections when such freedoms are already protected. Conservative Christians point to cases where businesses have been successfully sued over denying service to same gender couples as evidence for the need to protect religious freedoms, but what these cases really illustrate is that people are growing increasingly confident when it comes to discriminating against their fellow Americans.
Such laws don’t have very much of a Constitutional standing, either. Individual discrimination is perfectly legal, while those involved in public accommodations (such as businesses) may not refuse service on the grounds of identity. Only private organizations may do so, if such discrimination is a key part of their mission (an issue that has been a growing subject of controversy as attitudes on discrimination shift in the US). In Arizona, the law would essentially give public accommodations the right to ad hoc discrimination, which would be an extremely dangerous legal precedent.
Jan Brewer is no newbie to controversial legislation; she signed her state’s revolting and bigoted ‘papers please’ anti-immigration legislation in 2010. She appears to be holding off on commitment to signing this bill while she tests the waters. Meanwhile, many regions of the United States are lighting up in fury at Arizona all over again; while many businesses and some regional governments divested from Arizona in the wake of its horrific stance on immigration, many more may follow suit if the state pushes through this law, which is opposed by a variety of companies and organizations that do business and work in Arizona.
The state’s extremist political sector’s domination could be doing the state billions of dollars worth of harm in addition to creating fundamental human rights violations—will Arizona wake up in time to realise the error of its ways, or will it instead be emboldened as other states follow suit with aggressively homophobic laws of their own?