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Southern Legislatures Hard at Work: Dixie's Vile New Anti-LGBT Laws

As a society, we have changed. To those of us paying attention, the phrase "free exercise of religion" no longer conjures images of Native Americans in ancient mystical ceremonies -- but of faux-Christian bigots lashing out at others in the name of Jesus.
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While the rest of the country is distracted by the circus that is the presidential election, the American South is trying to undo the Civil Rights Movement.

The Mississippi, North Carolina, and Georgia legislatures just passed laws that specifically allow discrimination against LGBT people, as long as that discrimination is dressed up in church clothes.

First, a little background on Freedom of Religion.

Since the Pilgrims, religious freedom was the reason for living in America. Religious freedom was so quintessential an American value that we put it right there in the very first amendment:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

For a good long time, those words were interpreted to mean that the government can't regulate what people are allowed to believe, but it can regulate how we behave. So, for example, bigamy could be illegal, because the law applied to everybody and wasn't specifically targeted at Mormons with sister wives. This makes sense, because otherwise, any criminal could defend his or her behavior by simply saying the commission of the crime was essential to some religious practice.

Fast-forward to the 1960s. After the Civil Rights Movement, the legal interpretation of "religious freedom" widened. SCOTUS issued some rulings that permitted people to break laws when those laws directly interfered with religious practices. Seventh-Day Adventists, for example, were legally protected from requirements that they working on their Sabbath, and Amish families were exempt from having to send their kids to high school. Of course, anyone familiar with slippery slopes was concerned that this whole "let's be sure to respect people's religious practices" thing might get out of hand. (That's me, foreshadowing).

By 1990, lawmakers had tightened up considerably on the interpretation of "religious freedom." The state of Oregon tried to criminalize peyote use, which seriously screwed with Native Americans who smoked peyote during their religious ceremonies. And although everyone knew that the Native Americans had a sincere and longstanding history of sacred peyote use, Justice Scalia wasn't having it. Even Scalia, a devoutly religious man and a champion of religious values, wasn't about to endorse violations of drug laws, even during a religious ceremony, because he'd apparently heard of the whole church and state thing. SCOTUS said that ceremony or no ceremony, Native Americans were going to have to follow the same drug laws that the rest of us do.

After the peyote hoopla, lots of people knew that they'd better get a law on the books that specifically protects legit religious people doing legit religious things, or they (and by "they", I mean "Native Americans in particular") were going to get screwed by intolerant state governments. And voila! RFRA (the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act) was born.

RFRA has had complex legal challenges, most of which involve the central question "is this an actual religious practice that the government should be respecting, or is this some sort of bullshit argument to help some jackass break the law?" The results have been mixed. The Tax Court called bullshit on the Quaker lady claiming that federal income taxes violated her religion. But SCOTUS said that Florida is going to have to allow people to practice Santeria, animal sacrifices and all (musical interlude brought to you by Sublime).

That brings us to now. As a society, we have changed. To those of us paying attention, the phrase "free exercise of religion" no longer conjures images of Native Americans in ancient mystical ceremonies - but of faux-Christian bigots lashing out at others in the name of Jesus. In the summer of 2014, we saw business owners use RFRA to support their refusal to abide by federal healthcare law. In logic that makes the Quaker tax-evader look totally reasonable, Hobby Lobby argued that helping people obtain contraception, violates its religious beliefs. Why that makes sense, or how a business could have "beliefs" remains a question for the ages.

And that bastardization of the idea underlying the "free exercise of religion" now has its own, even more disgusting, Southern version.

North Carolina, Mississippi and others have passed their own state RFRA laws. Georgia's governor was good enough to veto the law, but declined to call the legislature out on its poor judgment. Mississippi's HB 1523 is certainly the worst of its kind, which specifically allows (read, "encourages") discrimination against LGBT people.

Last Wednesday, Mississippi passed the "Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act" which allows blanket protection for certain businesses and public employees to discriminate against LGBT people or people who have had extramarital sex if the discrimination is based on a "sincerely held religious belief" or "moral conviction."

From the law's absurd title (as if the state of Mississippi had been persecuting its own citizens for speaking their conscience) to its ten-page roadmap for ousting gays, it is a concrete example of everything that could ever be wrong with state law.

Just to paint the picture, under this law, a Mississippi business can fire, refuse to hire, pay unfair wages to, or otherwise discriminate against LGBT employees. Those same businesses are also free to refuse to serve LGBT patrons (if you need a visual, I suggest Googling "treatment of Blacks under Jim Crow"). And while same-sex marriage must be recognized thanks to federal law, MS state employees are free to refuse to provide marriage licenses to gay couples. Even more outrageous is that under this inane statute, homeless LGBT people can and will be denied emergency housing. Orphaned or abused children can and will be prevented from receiving safe, loving placement with an LGBT family member. And a forty-year old transgendered person who presents as a middle-aged man will be forced to use the ladies room. And folks, this is not a slippery-slope situation. I'm not talking about weird loopholes in the law that no legislator could have predicted. I'm talking about the straight-forward, predictable, intended consequences of this legal garbage.

And, it's not even just gay people that MS is setting up for discrimination. Anyone who has had an extramarital affair is welcome to join the party too. Sidebar on that one: it's pretty likely that the Scarlet Letter provision isn't even there because Mississippians hate cheaters as much as they hate gays. Someone drafting the law just knew that including cheaters on the naughty list might help the law seem more honestly religious.

I'm not in the business of teaching bigots that promoting equality is a moral obligation. And I'm even less in the business of teaching the American South that its disgusting history of misanthropy has no place in 2016 America. What I am interested in is how Americans of faith who honestly value religious freedom aren't outraged by the way they are being used. Those who exercise the discipline and effort required by a devout life should be disgusted that their sacred practices are being equated with the choice of a bigoted pastry chef to refuse to bake a cake.

American law has always given great deference to religion. Churches don't pay taxes, synagogues don't need to have wheelchair ramps, and kids can drink wine during communion. For fuck's sake, SCOTUS has even allowed animal sacrifice when it was part of an actual religious ceremony. Religion is sacred. But kicking a gay couple out of your limo isn't a religious practice. Putting a child into foster care isn't a religious practice. Working for the county clerk's marriage office isn't a religious practice.

Never, in all of American history, has it ever been the rule that a free exercise of religion requires that a person enjoy the company of everyone around him.

Hell, if Mississipians don't know by now that discrimination is wrong, then they deserve to be stereotyped as a bunch of toothless, illiterate swamp-mongers with single-branch family trees sleeping between their sisters and their shotguns in roach-infested trailers. It's not the discrimination that gets so under my skin, for there will always be haters. It's the tolerance for outright bullshit. We are an informed society. We know the difference between preserving a sacred religious practice - even one we dislike - and using religion as a subtext for evil. After all, isn't that our gripe with the terrorists? Shouldn't those who teach and preach the rituals of religion be leading the charge against pretenders seeking to ensconce hatred in holy vestments?

A law like HB-1523, that allows bakers, disc jockeys, and photographers to refuse to serve LGBT people on the basis that discrimination is necessary to preserve their consciences or protect their religious beliefs is logically identical to a law that would allow doctors to refuse to treat children of same-sex couples. Or one that would allow police to refuse to protect victims of gay-bashing. And it's not a slippery-slope. It's a bone-dry slope where the law is twisting the idea of "religious freedom" into something that it just isn't. If merely providing services to, or employing a person who is different, truly violates religious beliefs, then there's no logical basis to stop with wedding vendors. It would have to follow that anyone in any line of work could choose which people they will tolerate and which they will shun.

But until someone puts an end to this system of "I don't like you, so I'm going to say you violate my religious beliefs," I'd like to go on record:

Mississippi, you offend my moral convictions. Your entire state. Those that made the law, and those that stood by while it was passed. Those who are religious leaders, and those who are not. You know how you feel about gays in your workplace? Or about transgendered people in your bathrooms? That's how I feel about you in my country.

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