Lately, conservative republican dominated state legislatures and governors have been in the news scrambling to pass legislation known as a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”. Designed as a move to counteract recent developments which have seen the legalization of marriage equality and appeal to the sensitivities of evangelical Christian conservatives, such laws are little more than a new way to justify and legalize anti-LGBT bigotry at the state level which has been rapidly disappearing due to the demise of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military and judicial and legislative moves to legalize same-sex marriage in most states.
While claiming publicly that this legislation merely solidifies religious freedom for those who oppose granting equal rights to members of the LGBT community, these laws have the effect of justifying yet another form of bigotry that has no place in a free and open society. They disagree with what they see as an immoral lifestyle from the perspective of their religion. Granting LGBT people rights equal to their own rewards behavior which they believe should not be permitted at all, let alone rewarded with societal benefits equal to their own.
Such arguments are, in my opinion, very similar in tone and results to the arguments which throughout time have enabled certain segments of our society to feel superior to others based on race, gender, religion and other seemingly irrelevant criteria which have no bearing on whether or not they are just as valuable members of the human race as those seeking to subjugate them and force them to live in accordance with what their perception of religious propriety deems to be proper behavior. Since the founding of this nation, rights have been fought for and won with respect to both literal freedom from slavery and a political voice in the form of the vote, among others.
The sense of this line of thinking seems to be that tolerating such aberrant behavior on the part of anyone infringes upon the religious freedom of those who find it abhorrent, whether or not it impinges on any of their other civil and human rights. It also places their religious beliefs and freedom above the liberties and beliefs of those who do not share them. “Religious” beliefs can be and often are very arbitrary in nature, and have been used to justify any number of practices – many of which most of us would agree to be barbaric. Even in this country. Some would say even to this day. Our history is one of constant struggle to raise up members of one disadvantaged group after another. Few would dispute that we have reached neither equal rights nor equal opportunity for all regardless of race, gender or other circumstances beyond our ability to control as individuals.
One of the founding precepts to this country was the concept of freedom of religion, but this was to prevent the establishment of a state-sanctioned religion and a backdoor route to a theocracy. People are permitted to worship in freedom, but that does not give them the right to impose that religion on others or interfere with the rights and freedoms of others. As long as the LGBT community is not harming the rest of us, or society as a whole, in any demonstrable way, why should bigotry, discrimination and intolerance of them be permitted and legally protected? How is this form of discrimination any more valid than discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender or any other class of individual that has been deemed illegal and unconstitutional in the past? All other laws apply to them just as they do to everyone else.
Several factors have combined to mitigate, to a certain extent, the ability of these forces of bigotry to hold sway, even in some of the states which have elected some of the most rightwing governments. One is the great shift in support for the LGBT community among younger generations. Another is the economic strength that supporters of equality can have in states where such laws have become enacted. Demonstrated strength of commitment to oppose this sort of bigotry has included public determination to economically boycott states operating under such laws. Private businesses and even large corporations have become involved. The response from business and industry has already caused Indiana to at least partially rewrite its law. Walmart, headquartered in Arkansas and the country’s largest private employer, similarly helped convince that state to rethink its legislation before the governor would even sign it.
Bigotry and intolerance may never be entirely removed from our society, but our history has shown that great strides can be made to bring about a greater degree of justice and equality for all. The forces that seek to keep us divided so they may continue to rule over us are not easily defeated. Changes in demographics help to a certain extent. However, through voter suppression and economic impoverishment of many of us our current corrupt and immoral economic system that rules our political system, the few strive mightily to maintain control over the many.
Business is not as easy to convince to respond to some of the other arenas of our discontent as has been the case so far in this situation. They seem much less persuaded to act on other issues of social justice, such as wages, poverty, economic inequality and political influence. Some gains have been made recently in some sectors of the economy, exemplified by recent pledges by some employers of low wage workers to raise wages, but they are far from sufficient to make up for the intransigence of the status quo when it comes to responsiveness to the needs of all the people as opposed to the desires of the economic elites and their corporations.
Obviously, it is far easier for those on top to stay there when they control most of the resources and political power than it is for the rest of us to correct the injustices which have been decades, even centuries, in the making. We need to continue to call the oligarchs out on their economic, social and political lies, despite their obvious and more subtle attempts to thwart our efforts. The next year and a half promises to be a time filled with more rhetorical obfuscation and governmental lack of concrete action than ever. The job before us is to reverse the trend towards ever-increasing economic and political oligarchy and start moving in a direction of more democracy and freedom in all aspects of our lives.
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