Religion a poor excuse for anti-gay discrimination

Last week, the Arizona House and Senate passed a bill intended to give legal protection to individuals, businesses and other entities, including government employees, who want to discriminate against gay people.

If you don’t want to treat gay people like anybody else — if you don’t want to hire them, serve them in your restaurant, rent a hotel room to them — the bill protects you from lawsuits or other consequences as long as you claim that you are following your religious beliefs by doing so.

Now Georgia may be about to follow that bad example. House Bill 1023 and Senate Bill 377, both titled “The Preservation of Religious Freedom Act,” appear to be picking up momentum for possible passage in the next few weeks. If either passes and is signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal, religion would turn into a veritable “get out of jail or lawsuits free” card for any state or local law, including those that have nothing to do with gay rights or discrimination.

Under the language of the legislation, people and businesses can claim exemption from any government action or legal proceeding that “directly or indirectly constrains, inhibits, curtails, or denies the exercise of religion by any person or that directly or indirectly pressures any person to engage in any action contrary to that person’s exercise of religion.”

“(I)ndirectly inhibits … indirectly pressures” — that’s incredibly broad language, and it opens the door to all kinds of unintended consequences. Furthermore, it applies “whether or not the exercise is … a central part or requirement of the person’s religious tenets or beliefs.” In short, it offers a means to evade almost any law that can plausibly be claimed to offend even a vague religious sensibility.

The Anti-Defamation League, a longtime champion of religious liberty and an opponent of the bill, points out just a few of its potential consequences:

  • “It would create a strong new affirmative for criminal defendants charged with drug-related crimes, sexual assault or rapes of spouses or children, or child endangerment.
  • It would allow law enforcement to refuse assignments that they find religiously offensive such (as) assisting or guarding a religious institution of a different faith, a pharmacy that sells prescription contraception, a liquor store, a butcher shop selling pork or beef, or a casino.
  • It would allow public hospital employees including physicians, nurses, or administrators to refuse to assist patients, even on an emergency basis, or process any paper work that they find to be religiously offensive such as in-vitro fertilization, blood transfusions or psychiatric care.
  • It would allow any public employee adhering to an extremist religion, including Nation of Islam, Christian Identity, or Odinism to refuse providing service to an Asian, White, Black, Jewish or Hispanic person.”

Such legislation has become the latest conservative rage; similar “religious freedom” bills have been introduced in Kansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma and quite a few other states. The campaign is motivated by two or three isolated cases that have been well-publicized in right-wing circles in which businesses were sued for refusing to sell their services or products to gay couples.

And of course, that makes the legislation here in Georgia even dumber than it first seems, which is saying something. Those lawsuits occurred in New Mexico, Colorado and Washington state, where discrimination against gay people is illegal under state law. Georgia has no law that protects gay people from discrimination, and is extremely unlikely to be passing one anytime soon. It thus has no reason — not even a bad reason — to pursue this legislation.

Supporters claim the bills are also inspired by some vague backlash against provisions of Obamacare. However, since that’s a federal law, state legislation would have no effect on it. In reality, the legislation was filed and is being pushed solely because that’s what all the cool conservative kids are doing, and because it sends a message of defiance to those who believe that gay Americans ought to be treated the same as everybody else.

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