In the past few weeks, Indiana passed a religious freedom bill which, it has been argued, could allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT people. The backlash to this has been swift and profound, forcing the states of Indiana and Arkansas to review the laws and subsequently change them in order to avoid such discrimination. As the legislative session looms in Louisiana, State Representative Mike Johnson has prefilled The Marriage and Conscience Act, a much harsher bill which he has already agreed to amend in order to avoid the same ambiguities that brought such fervor on Indiana. Gay marriage is, as of the writing of this article, still illegal in Louisiana, and our Governor has come out in support of Johnson’s harsher pre-amendment bill.
LGBT rights have long been a political football in the United States. Religious freedom bills are the latest round in a very public battle between the free practice of religion and the rights of LGBT people, and are a modern incarnation of arguments about the separation of church and state. Which is preeminent: The right to practice one’s religion freely, or the civil rights of LGBT people?
This is a false equivocation. The civil rights of LGBT people pertains to their ability to move freely in society and enjoy the same legal protections and benefits taken for granted by the heterosexual population. The only right religious LGBT opponents seek is the right to be comfortable. LGBT rights are human rights. There is no gray area. One either supports human rights, or one does not. The entire LGBT rights debate is grotesque because we are openly debating whether human beings are entitled to human rights. We, as a nation, are willing to put the extension of human rights up for a democratic vote as if they were up for debate. We hide the basic nature of this debate behind politics and behind religion, but this does nothing to change the reality of what is happening. The marginalization of LGBT people has always been, is currently, and will always be immoral, and conflicts with the very concept of a republic.
Marginalization is giving way to a new tradition: not toleration, but acceptance.
Politically, the math is simple. Our political market place is populated by men and women who are willing to do anything if it means that they can get a cheap bump in the polls. The governor of Indiana is a man with presidential ambitions. Ted Cruz is a man with presidential ambitions. Bobby Jindal is a man with presidential ambitions. What does it say about the nature of these men that they are willing to endorse laws that deny LGBT people the basic right of commerce? Either they are cold, callous men with no sense of common humanity, or they are the cheapest of politicians who know that this is wrong but will do anything to win an election.
Even though the public outcry has blunted these laws today, until we guarantee LGBT people the same rights that the heterosexual population enjoys, there is nothing to prevent these laws from being introduced in the future. Where does this end? What happens when business owners begin to assert that their religious convictions forbid them from serving single mothers or atheists? What happens when that assertion turns towards racial minorities or interracial couples? We pretend that this is a new tactic, but it is not. They used to do it to Jews, Catholics, Blacks, and the Irish.
Religiously, this is complicated. Let us acknowledge that there are many religious people, groups, and institutions that openly and strongly support LGBT rights. The language of the supporters of religious-based discrimination couch their arguments in theology, but they merely use religion to hide their very real hatred of LGBT people; since such open hatred is frowned upon, they invoke religion to provide them cover.
Still, for some, this is a deeply held religious conviction. There is nothing that can be said to sway them as they take the Bible literally. If only they would show the same conviction with caring for the poor, the sick, the dying, and bringing peace to conflict as they do a Biblical prohibition that occurs in the same context as not eating shellfish or wearing clothes made of two kinds of fabric. The Bible is a complicated thing and has been used to simultaneously sanction many horrors inflicted on humanity, and to condemn those same horrors. In the same manner that the Bible was used to justify slavery and segregation, emancipation and civil rights, so it has been with LGBT rights.
A great deal of this issue involves “tradition.” The separation of church and state is one of our most important traditions. The founders of this nation were mostly religious men to be certain, but they were keenly aware of what happens when religion and the state intermingle because many of their parents and grandparents had seen it first hand and fled. The separation of church and state does not exist to protect the religious from the hands of secular government. It exists to protect the government from the hands of religious fanatics and oppression in the name of a god or holy book. In the American context, marriage is traditionally a union of a man and a woman, and the nuclear family is traditionally a mother, a father, and child. It is also tradition that traditions change, and give way to new traditions. The tradition of LGBT marginalization is giving way to a new tradition: not toleration, but acceptance.
American Pop is a bi-monthly opinion column critiquing modern American pop-culture, politics and current events, and the impact these issues have on our society. It is written by Louisiana State University Doctoral Candidate Nicholaus Mitchell.