A Fiberglas Elvis is caught in permanent "uh-huh-huh" in downtown Nashville, where the governor recently vetoed a bill making the Bible the state book of Tennessee. Other lawmakers across the country are dealing with bills with religious subtexts. MARK DAVIS/MRDAVIS@AJC.COM
Photo: Mark Davis / AJC
Photo: Mark Davis / AJC

Religious conviction drives legislation in Georgia, elsewhere

Faced with a changing state, a changing nation — men can wed men, and women are allowed the same privilege — Tennessee lawmakers decided to make a stand, she said.

“They feel that all this is an attack on their assumptions,” said Marshall, 29, a store clerk taking a recent lunch break in downtown Nashville. “This negates the separation of the church and state.”

The governor, a conservative Republican, agreed with the store clerk. Bill Haslam last week vetoed the bill. The issue effectively died when lawmakers couldn’t muster a simple majority of votes to overturn his veto.

A victory for common sense or the latest chapter in America’s accelerating descent into the moral abyss? That debate isn’t limited to Tennessee, or to Bibles.

Across the country — the South in particular — a wave of bills, proposals and court fights in recent months are again ramping up the culture wars. The measures come in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage, a decision many religious conservatives see as an assault on their beliefs.

The legislation may underscore Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations, too. The Republican front-runner has won wide support from religious conservatives worried about a nation loosed from its moral moorings.

In Georgia, lawmakers recently passed a “religious liberty” bill, spite of critics who argued that the measure was discriminatory. Supporters seethed as Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed it. They did not go away quietly: on a rainy Friday, hundreds gathered outside the Capitol to sing hymns and cheer for their Christian beliefs.

Back in Tennessee, Haslam signed a bill on Tuesday that allows therapists and counselors with “sincerely held principles” to reject gay, lesbian, transgender and other clients.

And bathrooms - a flashpoint in the Civil rights era when they were segregated for blacks and whites — have again taken on significance in the latest struggle.

In March, North Carolina legislators convened for one day to pass a bill decreeing single-sex occupancy bathrooms — a move to supersede a Charlotte ordinance that allowed transgender people to choose what bathrooms to use. Business, show business and sports figures have come out against the new law; supporters have rallied for it.

Massachusetts, Washington, Kentucky, Kansas: more than a dozen legislatures are dealing with “bathroom bills” or similar measures that go to the heart of our most private beliefs and practices. The bills’ wording may vary, say observers, but their intent does not.

The courts are beginning to weigh in, too. In Virginia, a federal appeals court sided with a transgender teen in a battle against his school board for the saying he has a right to use the boys’ bathroom. That decision could have implications for North Carolina’s bathroom law.

‘Uncomfortable with these people’

The Census, America’s once-a-decade accounting of itself, shows how our nation is changing.

Six years ago, more than 640,000 households were same-sex. Of that number, more than 130,000 listed themselves as married. California, not surprisingly, led the pack with 28,000-plus households; Georgia accounted for just over 3,600. The numbers have not declined since then.

The Williams Institute, a UCLA think tank that studies sexual-orientation issues, adds another number: 9 million. That’s the estimated population of Americans in 2010 who identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). The institute based its findings on national and state population surveys. That figure is roughly 3 percent of the total U.S. population for the same year.

That could help explain the spate of recent legislation across the country aimed at bathrooms, said Chase Strangio, a staff attorney for the national American Civil Liberties Union. Often the new laws are proposed in states with some of the lowest numbers of lesbian, gay and transgender people. Lawmakers, Strangio said, are uneasy with people dissimilar to themselves. ”The bills, he added, are a “solution looking for a problem.”

“They’re using their ignorance to say, ‘We are uncomfortable with these people’,” Strangio said.

What makes this latest conflict remarkable is its scope. Never has the ACLU dealt with so many legislative cases at once, Strangio said. Many have a common denominator, he said. “The subtext has been religion in many of these states,” he said.

The bills highlight a conflict between old and new, between long-held values and people who represent a threat to them, said Ferrell Guillory, who heads the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Southern legislatures, he said, have become progressively more conservative, a trend that began in the Reagan era. “Now that they have the power, they’re using their moment to enact their values, their religious values, in the political arena,” he said.

Hundreds showed up April 22 in Atlanta to put their values on display in the We Stand With God rally. For more than an hour people stood in rain-spattered Liberty Plaza, opposite the Capitol. Attendees huddled under a canopy of umbrellas, as if peeping out from under huge flowers. On a lectern, a succession of ministers and elected officials affirmed their belief in Christian principles.

Underscoring each brief speech was the certainty that a struggle is taking place in homes, churches and state houses; the outcome of that conflict could spell America’s doom or deliverance.

“We are at war!” said the Rev. Garland Hunt, senior pastor at The Father’s House, a nondenominational church in Norcross. “Who would ever believe that man would redefine marriage? Who would believe anyone would redefine men’s and women’s bathrooms?”

Hunt gestured toward the governor’s office in the Capitol, standing stark and white against the gray sky. “He (Deal) does not have the authority to veto God out of the state of Georgia!”

People cheered — among them, Jim Sauers of Hamilton Mill. He drove an hour to Atlanta, windshield wipers whapping the whole way, to join fellow believers.

“This battle is huge,” said Sauers. “It’s real. We’re in the middle of it.”

‘Real anxiety’

The South finds itself in the middle of that conflict. It’s a place where city folks may have a decidedly different take on social issues than their peers in the country, a region where progressive notions rub up against more traditional, conservative values.

It’s a divide that cuts across many political beliefs. “Religious liberty,” minimum wage, guns: Those issues, and more, highlight the differences between city and country.

David McCormick rang up a quick purchase and paused, looking at the bronze, life-sized likeness of Ernest Tubb, caught in a permanent smile. McCormick is the owner of Ernest Tubb Records, located in the heart of downtown Nashville. It’s the part of town where music piped from one storefront competes with tunes rolling out of the next place, where Fiberglas Elvises fix passersby with a permanent lip curl.

While he’s not sure if Tennessee needs legislation governing bathroom use, he liked the Bible bill. “I think it’s a good idea,” said McCormick, who’s worked in his shop on Broadway Street for more than 40 years. “They’ve taken religion out of the United States way too much.”

Across the street, Nadine Rigsby looked up from a stack of brownies and nodded emphatically. The Bible, she said, is what Tennessee needs.

“It’s a good idea,” said Rigsby, 42, the manager of Savannah’s Candy Kitchen. The bakery, its doors wide open, smelled of chocolate, toffee and other things too good to leave on a plate.

“People realize we need to change,” said Rigsby, who’s also uncomfortable with bathroom laws. “And that (change) begins with (embracing) religion.”

Emily Winters thought so, too. She works a streetside stand featuring guitar strings recycled into bracelets. The sale of the jewelry goes to fund food banks and other programs for the poor.

“You know, we’re in the Bible Belt of America,” said Winters, 19. “It’s our culture.”

Changing times can be uneasy times, said Peter Rulewicz. A recent spring afternoon found the Hartford, Conn., resident, lounging on a bench outside the gift shop at the Grand Ole Opry. He, his wife and another couple had spent a week prowling Tennessee, reveling in its soft spring greenery.

Rulewicz, 72, said he’s heard those arguments about the separation of church and state before. He’s heard people oppose prayer in public, too. Now, they’re talking about bathrooms.

“In the end, people come back to the basics,” he said. “The Pledge of Allegiance, prayer, the Bible.”

Like the academics, he thinks the Bible bill and bathroom bills may be the legislative response to a rising tide of change — men marrying men, women becoming men, and more.

“It’s something we’ll just have to be uncomfortable with,” he said. “If they want to do that, who are we to stop them?”

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