‘Religious freedom’ law more about discrimination, pressure politics

March 31, 2013

Kentucky’s new “religious freedom” law sure looks like an attempt by conservative Christians to justify discrimination against gay people and get around local “fairness” ordinances.

That is why many people were puzzled when Jim Gray, Lexington’s first openly gay mayor, was the most muted voice in the choir of opponents who urged Gov. Steve Beshear to veto the bill.

Beshear did issue a veto, but the General Assembly overturned it by a wide margin last week.

Beshear’s veto came at the urging of dozens of organizations and individuals — liberal churches, gay rights groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Kentucky League of Cities, the Kentucky Association of Counties and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who said the bill would “take us backwards as a city and Commonwealth, hurting our strategic position in an increasingly global economy.”

Gray, however, issued a tepid statement that stopped short of urging a veto. He has declined to elaborate publicly.

“The legislation’s stated goal is to encourage religious freedom. That’s a worthy goal,” his statement said. “However, many citizens are concerned the bill may unintentionally open the door to discrimination. Last Thursday, I talked to the governor, shared these concerns and urged him to consider these issues carefully.”

Gray took a beating in social media from some gay people and their supporters, but gay rights leaders were more circumspect. Lexington Fairness chairman Roy Harrison, in an interview Friday, avoided any criticism of Gray.

“We are really happy that he brought more discussion to the bill,” Harrison said. “Everyone has their own political calculus.”

The General Assembly’s political calculus was clear. Most opponents of the bill were lawmakers from progressive urban districts. Legislators from more conservative rural, small-town and suburban districts voted for it.

In a conservative district, there is nothing more dangerous in the next election than having an opponent claim you voted against “religious freedom.” Rural Democrats, especially, are feeling the heat.

Gray is seeking re-election to a second term as mayor next year, so he may have wanted to avoid alienating conservatives. But few people expect Gray to get serious opposition. Former Police Chief Anthany Beatty floated a trial balloon about running, but it hasn’t gotten much lift.

Gray seems to be widely popular in Lexington, even among former critics. As mayor, he has had significant accomplishments and has made few missteps.

Besides, voters knew Gray was gay when they elected him to council in 2006 with enough votes to make him vice mayor. His sexual orientation wasn’t really an issue when he unseated incumbent Mayor Jim Newberry in 2010. Since then, Gray hasn’t tried to be “the gay mayor” — just “the mayor.”

Gray’s political calculation may have been that everyone, including the governor, knew where he stood on this subject, so he had little to gain by being vocal on a statewide controversy where he had no real influence.

Gray did come out strong a year ago on a Lexington controversy, when Hands on Originals cited religious objections in refusing to print T-shirts for a gay pride festival, sparking an ongoing investigation by the city’s Human Rights Commission.

A more important political calculation may have been that Gray didn’t want to anger the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Damon, D-Nicholasville, an influential member of the Central Kentucky delegation. Rep. Sannie Overly of Paris may have unseated Damron as chair of the House Democratic caucus this year, but the way this bill sailed through the General Assembly showed Damron still has plenty of clout.

For all the huffing and puffing on both sides, nobody seems to really know what this legislation will do. The stated intent is to make it easier for Kentuckians to ignore state laws or regulations that conflict with their “sincerely held” religious beliefs unless there is a “compelling governmental interest.”

Bill supporters such as The Family Foundation, which could be more accurately called the Foundation for Families Just Like Ours, insists it is not a vehicle for discriminating against gay people. But a spokesman also has argued that the Hands on Originals case wasn’t really discrimination.

The law’s uncertainties and unintended consequences were a big reason Beshear said he vetoed it. “As written, the bill will undoubtedly lead to costly litigation,” he said.

Don’t forget the hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars that have been wasted on defending clearly unconstitutional attempts by some local governments to post the Ten Commandments in public buildings.

Harrison, the Lexington Fairness chairman, said gay rights and civil liberties groups will be watching to see if this new law is used to try to justify discrimination. If so, they will aggressively challenge it.

Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, a Unitarian Universalist minister and opponent of the new law, mused that one unintended consequence of it could be to advance gay rights.

Unitarians support gay marriage. Could not they use this law to challenge Kentucky’s 2004 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions as an infringement of their “sincerely held” religious beliefs? Might the state then be forced to show a “compelling governmental interest” for banning gay marriage?

One thing is for sure: this bad law will keep the culture warriors battling for years to come.


As you reflect on civil rights history, imagine the future

January 19, 2013

When I was a child, many white Americans, and most of them in the South, considered Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists to be radicals and trouble-makers. Some even called them “communists.”

Almost everyone now considers them heroes. Ideas about racial equality and justice that were then controversial are now common sense.

Segregationist leaders such as George Wallace, Lester Maddox and Orval Faubus are now remembered with contempt, when they are remembered at all. We pity the average people who enabled the bigots, either with their actions or their silence.

On Monday, we mark the 27th annual holiday honoring King, as well as the second inauguration of the nation’s first president of African descent. Looking back, it is amazing how much changed in so short a time. Racism still exists, to be sure, but it is no longer acceptable in mainstream society.

It makes me wonder: What controversial ideas today will seem like common sense in just a few years?

The first that comes to mind is gay rights. It is today’s most controversial civil rights issue, yet the nation has clearly turned the corner. You can tell it the same way you could tell by the early 1960s that we had turned the corner of black civil rights. The groundswell of support wasn’t just coming from the victims of discrimination, but from others who realized it was wrong and found the courage to say so.

If there has been a consistent theme of social progress during my lifetime, it is this: discrimination against any group of people because of who they are is un-American.

We saw an example of that last week when the small Perry County town of Vicco became the fourth municipality in Kentucky to ban discrimination against gays, joining Lexington, Louisville and Covington. Vicco officials said they weren’t endorsing homosexuality; they just thought discrimination was wrong.

Most opposition to gay rights comes from religious conservatives. During King’s lifetime, many white Christians found Biblical justification for segregation and discrimination, just as their great-grandfathers had for slavery. Everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs. What is problematic is when they try to impose them on others.

Wendell Berry, the renowned Kentucky writer and lifelong Baptist, made that point and many others to Baptist ministers meeting at Georgetown College on Jan. 11. Coverage of his talk has attracted a lot of attention. (Read more about what he had to say on my blog.)

When I think of other controversial issues that will seem like no-brainers in a few years, the reasons for our clouded judgment have more to do with economics than religion.

Kentuckians’ disregard for the environment reminds me of our willful ignorance about the health and social costs of tobacco just two or three decades ago. Only after the price-support system that made tobacco an economic mainstay of family farms was abolished did we stop trying to deny the obvious and defend the indefensible.

More than 30 local governments in Kentucky now have public smoking bans, and some legislators are pushing for a statewide version to curb soaring health-care costs. Restricting smoking in most public places is now common sense, yet it would have been unthinkable in Kentucky a generation ago.

Sit back for a moment and try to imagine conventional wisdom a few years from now. For one thing, I think, discrimination based on sexual orientation will be as unacceptable then as discrimination based on race, gender or national origin is now.

I also can imagine hearing comments like these:

Why did people back then allow the beauty and future economic viability of Eastern Kentucky’s mountains to be destroyed just so coal companies could extract the last measure of profit in return for a declining number of short-term jobs?

How could people back then have denied the scientific consensus about climate change and refused to act when the signs — melting glaciers, the increasing frequency of killer storms and droughts, year after year of record-high temperatures — were so obvious?

What were they thinking?

As we honor civil rights heroes Monday, and pity the bigots and their enablers, let us also give some thought to the future. Who will people honor then, and who will they pity?

And ask yourself: which side of history will I be on?


Wendell Berry talks gay marriage with Baptist ministers

January 18, 2013

Wendell Berry, at his home near Port Royal, Ky., December 2011. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

As an elder statesman of American letters, Wendell Berry is being given some good platforms to speak his mind. He isn’t letting these opportunities go to waste.

Chosen last year by the National Endowment for the Humanities to deliver the annual Jefferson Lecture, the Kentucky author gave a thoughtful indictment of corporate domination and the industrial economy, saying it has abused the land and people and threatens our very survival.

On Jan. 11, Berry spoke at Georgetown College to a gathering of Baptist ministers. The lifelong Baptist used the forum to sharply criticize his denomination’s opposition to the legalization of gay marriage.

Berry’s writing doesn’t lend itself well to sound bites. So here are some extended excerpts from his remarks, which created an Internet stir after Bob Allen of Associated Baptist Press News reported them:

“My argument … was the sexual practices of consenting adults ought not to be subjected to the government’s approval or disapproval, and that domestic partnerships in which people who live together and devote their lives to one another ought to receive the spousal rights, protections and privileges the government allows to heterosexual couples.”

“The Bible … has a lot more to say against fornication and adultery than against homosexuality. If one accepts the 24th and 104th Psalms as scriptural norms, then surface mining and other forms of earth destruction are perversions. If we take the Gospels seriously, how can we not see industrial warfare — with its inevitable massacre of innocents — as a most shocking perversion? By the standard of all scriptures, neglect of the poor, of widows and orphans, of the sick, the homeless, the insane, is an abominable perversion.”

“Jesus talked of hating your neighbor as tantamount to hating God, and yet some Christians hate their neighbors by policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so. Are they not perverts in the fullest and fairest sense of that term? And yet none of these offenses — not all of them together — has made as much political/religious noise as homosexual marriage.”

“The oddest of the strategies to condemn and isolate homosexuals is to propose that homosexual marriage is opposed to and a threat to heterosexual marriage, as if the marriage market is about to be cornered and monopolized by homosexuals. If this is not industrial capitalist paranoia, it at least follows the pattern of industrial capitalist competitiveness. We must destroy the competition. If somebody else wants what you’ve got, from money to marriage, you must not hesitate to use the government – small of course – to keep them from getting it.”

“If I were one of a homosexual couple — the same as I am one of a heterosexual couple — I would place my faith and hope in the mercy of Christ, not in the judgment of Christians. When I consider the hostility of political churches to homosexuality and homosexual marriage, I do so remembering the history of Christian war, torture, terror, slavery and annihilation against Jews, Muslims, black Africans, American Indians and others. And more of the same by Catholics against Protestants, Protestants against Catholics, Catholics against Catholics, Protestants against Protestants, as if by law requiring the love of God to be balanced by hatred of some neighbor for the sin of being unlike some divinely preferred us. If we are a Christian nation — as some say we are, using the adjective with conventional looseness — then this Christian blood thirst continues wherever we find an officially identifiable evil, and to the immense enrichment of our Christian industries of war.”

“Condemnation by category is the lowest form of hatred, for it is cold-hearted and abstract, lacking even the courage of a personal hatred. Categorical condemnation is the hatred of the mob. It makes cowards brave. And there is nothing more fearful than a religious mob, a mob overflowing with righteousness – as at the crucifixion and before and since. This can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal to kindness: to heretics, foreigners, enemies or any other group different from ourselves.”

And those are only the highlights. Read APB’s full story here.

 

 

 


Berea should again be a leader, enact fairness law

June 22, 2011

The nation has begun commemorating a series of 50th anniversary milestones from the civil rights movement.

Looking back, it is hard to imagine an America where citizens could be denied a job, a home or service in a restaurant or hotel because of their race, sex, ethnicity, religion or disability. But that was acceptable until anti-discrimination laws were passed in the mid-1960s.

Those laws didn’t just happen. People were beaten, jailed and even killed while fighting for them — and it wasn’t just the people who suffered discrimination. Things didn’t change until enough other people found the courage to speak out.

I offer this history lesson because Kentucky’s civil rights law remains incomplete. In most of this state, citizens can still be denied a job, a rental home or service in public accommodations based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Berea is now debating whether to join Louisville, Lexington and Covington as the only places in Kentucky that prohibit such discrimination through so-called fairness ordinances.

Berea’s suggested ordinance would protect gay, lesbian and transgender people from discrimination in the workplace, housing and public accommodations. Still, there might be exceptions for employment at small, private businesses and faith-based organizations. The ordinance also might create a local human rights commission to investigate allegations of discrimination.

At a crowded public meeting in May, called by a three-member city council committee studying the issue, many citizens, including some Christian pastors, spoke against a fairness ordinance. “That was sufficient evidence to me that the possibility of discrimination exists,” said Jason Howard, an ordinance advocate.

But at a second public meeting last Thursday, speakers for an ordinance outnumbered opponents by three-to-one. The committee must eventually recommend that the council draft and vote on an ordinance, or not, or put the issue up for a public referendum.

Fairness laws have faced significant opposition across Kentucky. Henderson city commissioners adopted one in 1999, only to repeal it two years later amid voter backlash. Louisville’s ordinance failed several times before it passed in 1999.

Most opposition to fairness laws comes from Christians who consider homosexuality to be a sin. Other Christians disagree, or they believe laws shouldn’t be based on religious views.

Berea’s debate over a fairness ordinance has gained special attention because of the town’s progressive history. Berea College was founded in 1855 by the Rev. John G. Fee based on what he considered the Christian principles of fairness and equality. At the time, many other Christians quoted the Bible to justify slavery. The college was the first in the South to admit African-Americans and women. It is best known now for educating students of modest means who work in return for full scholarships.

A fairness ordinance is supported by two Berea churches Fee founded: First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Church of Christ, Union. Berea College hasn’t taken a stand on the issue, although it prohibits such discrimination on its campus and offers same-sex partner benefits to employees.

Christians have differing views on homosexuality. Many point to a few Bible verses that condemn it. But the Bible also prohibits divorce and says adulterers and non-virgin brides should be stoned to death.

Other Christians note that Jesus didn’t mention homosexuality in the Bible, but he did talk about loving your neighbor, treating people as you would want to be treated and being careful about judging others.

Homosexuality will always be subject to religious debate, because each Christian interprets the Bible to fit his or her own conscience and understanding. But that’s not really the point.

Freedom of religion — even freedom from religion — is a core American value. The same goes for equal protection under the law. Gay, lesbian and transgender people deserve the same legal rights and protections as everyone else. It won’t happen easily, though, so long as elected officials can get more votes by pandering to some people’s fears and prejudices.

The people of Berea have long set an example for the rest of Kentucky by treating society’s marginalized people with fairness and justice. The right thing to do in this case should be obvious. And it might even help other Kentuckians find the courage to speak out.