A week ago, the Mississippi state government passed an anti-gay law. The law, titled in propagandist fashion the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, seems to follow a recent pattern in conservative politics, which is to pass a controversial legislation so quickly that there is no time for debate. This has been done repeatedly with the gun laws, voting laws, and welfare reform. Now that the NRA, the plutocrats, and the misanthropes have been appeased, we move on to homophobia.
The anti-LBGT law was introduced into committee in February, where it hid among the sea of bills that float around legislative committees, before surfacing rather abruptly the last week of March. Within a week of first being reported in the Mississippi media, it was passed, and signed. It was first proposed in February, but after bouncing around for a month it was voted on in its final form in the State House on March 30, passed by the Senate on April 4, and signed into law April 5. Breakneck speed for a state that took 5 years to complete construction on a train bridge near my house.
Its proponents call it a religious freedom law. Some Christians, the argument goes, believe the Bible condemns gay people as an abomination (Leviticus 18:22 and 1 Corinthians 6:9 are commonly cited examples). Thus, to force a religious person to have anything to do with a gay or transgender person is a violation of his or her rights. While technically applying to any religion, the law is intended to protect Christians — no one seriously thinks the Mississippi legislature would pass a law to protect a belief specific to Muslims.
So we now have a law, possibly an unconstitutional law (although its constitutionality may depend on who fills Antonin Scalia's place on the Supreme Court), which explicitly says that a citizen cannot be prosecuted for refusing any kind of service to a gay or transgender citizen, or for firing someone from a job because of sexual orientation.
Bigotry is not, and never has been, a crime. The law, however, especially in the South, has a history of protecting and reinforcing the bigot. From slavery to Jim Crow to the old law that permitted a husband to beat his wife with a stick as long as it was less than the width of his thumb, the law has often protected prejudice. After decades of backing away from the old ways and adopting a neutral stance toward bigots, it seems that the state of Mississippi wants to go back. As a result, we now have a law that says, “Do you want to be an asshole? Sure, go ahead. As long as you are a religious asshole, you have the approval of the state.”
How this relates to the religious freedom guaranteed in First Amendment is difficult to pin down. Yes, governments do have the responsibility to protect religions from prosecution. But just because people choose to use religion as an excuse for being an asshole, doesn’t mean the state has to extend its protection to the behavior. Asshole and religion are not the same thing.
Even before the law, business owners could refuse to deal with certain customers. All they had to do was avoid showing obvious racism in doing so. A restaurant manager can throw a customer off his property for almost any weak reason he can think of. The weaker and more vague the reason is, the better. Throw a black family out because they are black, and there could be a problem. Throw them out because their shoes are ugly -- that's perfectly fine. As long as the owner doesn't make it obvious that it is a racial decision, no state in America is going to prosecute.
Since homophobia is, under this system, more or less protected from the law, additional laws are not necessary. That is why this law is nothing but bigotry. It doesn’t extend the law; it simply puts a government imprimatur on bad behavior. For a state to come out and say, “If you don't like gay people, great! We support you!” is to move from merely permitting people to be assholes to making assholery state-sponsored behavior.
There is a difference between stupidity and assholery. Stupid people can’t help being stupid. Assholes choose to be assholes.
Like, you know, by enacting a law.
What does an asshole in action look like? Take our governor Phil Bryant, on whose desk the bill landed on April 4. Bryant announced that he would "consider if the bill was best for the citizens of Mississippi," which he did for a grand total of 24 hours before signing it into law. Twenty-four hours isn't enough time to consult with business and social leaders. Twenty-four hours isn't enough time to ask the State Attorney General if the law is constitutional or not, or to consider the possibility that promoting bad behavior might put LGBT Mississippians in some kind of danger.
No, twenty-four hours is only enough time to allow the Guv to tell his loyal supporters that he thought about it for awhile before he chose to be an asshole.
As a regular churchgoer, I am aware of the fraught relationship religion has with homosexuality. While the Bible's proscriptions against homosexuality are more complicated than the typical fundamentalist is willing to admit, it is true that the Bible mentions homosexuality by name and singles it out as a sin more than once. Thus, tolerance does represent a theological problem for many churches.
Without going into great detail, my view is that the Biblical condemnation of homosexuality has more to do with behavior than sexual orientation. In Biblical times, many cultures had religious practices that included elements like animal and human sacrifice, slavery, castration, prostitution, and homosexual sex. When early Judaism rejected these practices, it did so for both ethical reasons and to differentiate itself from more primitive faiths.
Back then, homosexuality was not understood as a physiological state, something people are born with. It was thought of as a behavior, like eating pork or drinking too much, or adultery. Thus, the condemnations were of acts, not people. St. Paul, when he rejected homosexuality, was rejecting a practice, not an orientation. Paul would not have understood same sex relationships as an outgrowth of orientation. Paul also counseled against marriage, telling his followers to get married only if they lacked the discipline to live a chaste life. These are not the words of someone who rejected an orientation. They are the words someone who thought some behaviors were more compatible with spiritual growth than others. For Paul, the problem was the sex, more than who it was with.
And all this has to be tempered with the understanding that Paul was addressing an ancient audience who lived lives very different from ours.
Modern medicine has not yet proven that gays are born and not made, but the data is strongly moving in that direction. There is a lot of behavioral science research that shows gay people don’t simply behave differently — they are different. Some of these differences appear very early on in life, in childhood — long before a gay person would be sexually aware enough to make a conscious decision about sexual orientation.
If gays are born, not made, this presents a serious problem for religion. It means God intended gay people to be gay. Homosexuality is a natural state.
From this it follows that God intends that there be gay people. Anyone who disputes that, who argues that to be homosexual is to be sinful, is arguing that gays are "born wrong," which is blasphemy. God doesn't make mistakes, as the old Christian saying goes. To challenge the sexual orientation that God willed gays to have, is, from a religious point of view, to challenge God’s decisions.
Whatever accommodation Christianity is going to make for the existence of LGBTs, it cannot be the legalization of bigoted behavior. Not only is this approach immoral because it implies that some people are better than others under the law, but it does nothing to address the more serious religious issue, how to resolve the ancient theology of marriage with the scientific evidence. A gay man cannot marry a woman without making himself a liar. Nor can he pretend to be straight for the benefit of religious teaching. I wouldn’t think the goal of religion would be to make innocent people into liars.
This isn't a religious freedom law. Religious freedom means the right to believe whatever you want to and to attend the church of your choice. This is the Freedom to be an Asshole Law.
As a Christian, I object to the conflation of the meaning of the words "religion" and "asshole." And fail to see how encouraging people to be assholes under the guise of religion does anything at all to forward the cause for Christ in the world.