Could Lincoln, Nebraska Be the Gettysburg of Gay Rights?

If the citizens of Lincoln vote to enshrine fairness in their charter, this city could become a pivot point in the last great civil rights movement in America: the campaign to end legalized bigotry against people whose sexual orientation differs from the majority.
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My adopted hometown of Lincoln, Neb., has erected not one but two statues of the man for whom it is named. Suddenly, they have taken on a new significance. One, standing in front of our city hall, portrays young Lincoln the railsplitter. Upright, stern and muscular, this Lincoln was, for all his good qualities, a callow racist.

The other, on the west side of the Nebraska State Capitol, shows Lincoln as we know him, older, wiser and humbler. Having led his nation through bloody civil war, and having signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he stands with head bowed in melancholy reflection. Here is the Lincoln who said, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy."

We who live in the capital city that bears his name are locked in a historic struggle over two kinds of modern-day slavery. The first is the legalized enchainment of lesbian, gay and transgendered people in second-class citizenship, forbidden to marry or even enter a domestic partnership, and subject to being fired from their jobs or evicted from their homes for nothing more than a suspicion that their sexuality does not conform to a biblical standard. Last month, the Lincoln City Council passed an ordinance that unlocks one of those shackles: the Fairness Ordinance extends anti-discrimination protections in housing and hiring to the LGBT community.

The other is enslavement to Old Time Religion. Claiming God's imprimatur, the morally primitive, patently sexist and stridently homophobic ideology of Old Time Religion goes unquestioned, unchallenged, handed down from pulpit to pew and from parent to child. At its core is the radical belief that we live in a theocracy. "We don't have the freedom to define by ordinance what is approved by God or disapproved by God," the Rev. Tom Rempel, senior pastor at Faith Bible Church, told the local newspaper.

Reacting to the Fairness Ordinance, Mount Olive Evangelical Lutheran Church placed a sign on its wayside pulpit: "Sodom's City Council Got It Wrong Too." Though opposition is entirely bound up in the misguided myths of Old Time Religion, it's not just churches that are involved. Religious Right advocacy groups such as Family First are leading the charge back to the Bible.

Since the ordinance passed, more than 10,000 residents have signed a petition for a repeal referendum. Our Republican governor has endorsed a vote. Bowing to the inevitable, Mayor Chris Beutler has called on the people of Lincoln to amend their city charter and put in place guarantees of fairness toward gays, lesbians and the transgendered. Sometime in the coming months, the citizens of Lincoln will have the opportunity to do just that.

Now, Lincoln is a city of a quarter million in a Midwestern farm state of less than 2 million. Chances are, you don't live here, or anywhere near Nebraska. So why should you care?

Lincoln may be small, but it is more than 30 times the size of Gettysburg, turning point in the Civil War. Lincoln has 50,000 more residents than Montgomery, Ala., where Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back of the bus led to a boycott that ended in a civil rights revolution in America.

If the citizens of Lincoln vote to enshrine fairness in their charter, this city could become a pivot point in the last great civil rights movement in America: the campaign to end legalized bigotry against people whose sexual orientation or gender-expression harmlessly differs from the majority's.

"So what?" some may say. "I'm not gay." Well, neither am I. But fairness is, by definition, not that which serves your personal interests but a principled commitment to treat everyone justly. Moreover, I believe your interests and mine are at stake in this contest.

You see, it's not just about gay rights. The forces of Old Time Religion are engaged in a holy war to impose their theology on the rest of us. They will, evidently, stop at nothing to win. Despite the Ten Commandments' injunction against bearing false witness, they fill the airwaves and Internet with lies about, well, all kinds of things: American history, President Obama's citizenship and religion, and of course the "threat" posed by the gay "agenda."

But lies are the least of it. The Catholic hierarchy (in contrast to the laity) has of late made its priority in America perfectly clear: to crush not only a woman's right to choose but anyone's right to contraception. It began with a Vatican reprimand of American nuns, who were faulted for spending too much time caring for the poor and promoting social justice rather than fighting against the right to abortion. It accelerated with an investigation of the Girl Scouts. Now, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, leader of the U.S. bishops, has threatened to shut down Catholic Charities if the Administration insists that those who accept federal funds provide health insurance that covers contraception. You can catch Dolan's threat in less than a minute on this video.

Of course it's not really a matter of religious liberty. Like Bob Jones University, Catholic Charities is free to choose religious conviction over federal largesse. The evangelical university had a policy against interracial dating, based on its dogma that "God intended segregation of the races and that the Scriptures forbid interracial marriage." It cost Bob Jones U. $1 million in back taxes to stick with that belief, which it later abandoned amid apologies for the harm. All the Vatican would have to do is get off the federal dole and return to being an entirely private charity.

A Vatican-imposed shutdown of Catholic Charities would hurt a lot of people in this country. But even then we would not have touched bottom. The fanatical fringe of the evangelical right is busily turning our public schools into madrassas. You remember those Saudi-sponsored schools in Pakistan that teach kids radical Islam?

Well, take a look at what the Good News Club is teaching elementary schoolchildren in more than 3,000 American public schools. Writing in the Guardian, author Katherine Stewart says that a hundred thousand children will be drilled in the Bible's lessons on divinely mandated genocide this fall in the club's afterschool Bible classes. The lesson kids will be instructed to learn, she says, is that God wants them to kill unbelievers.

So the lines are drawn, not between the gay minority and the rest of us, but between people of good faith and the forces of Old Time Religion. Let Lincoln be the turning point.

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