In the opening paragraphs of his astute and accessible explanation of why Indiana’s religious freedom law is unconscionable, Garrett Epps shows why I bristle every time someone tries to hide his or her flagrant prejudice behind God’s grace.
No one, I think, would ever have denied that Maurice Bessinger was a man of faith.
And he wasn’t particularly a “still, small voice” man either; he wanted everybody in earshot to know that slavery had been God’s will, that desegregation was Satan’s work, and the federal government was the Antichrist. God wanted only whites to eat at Bessinger’s six Piggie Park barbecue joints; so His servant Maurice took that fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1968 decided that his religious freedom argument was “patently frivolous.”
Bessinger was just one of so many who used religion to justify all manner of injustice against African Americans, from slavery to Jim Crow. That’s why I am sensitive to attempts to use religion to deny others humanity, dignity and respect. And that is what the so-called religious freedom laws in Indiana and Arkansas would do. As Epps explains, the Indiana law is especially odious because it could shield private companies from legal action brought by an individual claiming a violation of his or her civil rights. All those companies need do is somehow prove they were adhering to their religious beliefs, sincerely held, no doubt.
Let’s be real here for a moment. We gays know who likes us and who doesn’t, especially when it comes to where we decide to spend our money. Same-sex couples yearning to throw their own fairy-tale wedding pretty much know exactly who would arrange their flowers, cater their reception, bake their cake and snap their keepsake photos. But those not living in a gay metropolis, where the options are limited to none, ought to have legal recourse for the indignity suffered simply because of who they love. And let’s not forget that there are indeed religious gays and lesbians who can’t abide their faith being twisted to condone discrimination against them.
If you think such discrimination against same-sex couples is theoretical, just take a listen to this outrageous radio interview with an Indiana restaurant owner who said his name was Ryan on the “Kyle & Rachel” show of Indianapolis late last week. “I understand people’s lifestyles and what they want to do, but I don’t want them bringing that into my place of business and make my other people that are there uncomfortable,” said Ryan, who also proclaimed himself to be a Christian. But what kind of Christian would do what he said he did when asked if he ever discriminated against gays?
“I have discriminated,” he said. “I have not really closed early, but I have said something is broken in the kitchen so that I couldn’t serve them.” When the incredulous radio host Rachel Bogle asked whether he was okay with doing such a thing, the owner replied: “I feel okay with it because it’s my place of business. I pay the rent. I built it. It’s all my money and my doing so it’s my place. I can do whatever I want with it. They can have their lifestyle and do their things on their own place or have people that want to be with them in their type of place not my type of place.”
This not only flies in the face of decency and morality, but it also flies in the face of an assertion by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence on “This Week” yesterday. “Hoosiers don’t believe in discrimination. …I mean this is not about discrimination,” he said many times in avoiding a yes-or-no question about whether it should be legal in his state to discriminate against gays and lesbians. “This is about protecting the religious liberty of every Hoosier of every faith.” No, it’s not, which is why the state legislature is now hustling to “clarify” the law.
The great silver lining in all this is that the loudest voices against what Pence has done are from private businesses. Discrimination isn’t just wrong. It’s bad for business. You’d think a governor would know that.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj