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Why I’m not panicked about the Mississippi bill

Timothy Kincaid

April 2nd, 2014

The Mississippi Senate and House have passed a bill (similar to that vetoed by Arizona Governor Brewer) which would formally legalize discrimination in that state, so long as such discrimination is “substantially motivated by one’s sincerely held religious belief, whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief”.

It is a rather nasty piece of work which was formulated out of animus and is intended as a tool to deny rights to gay people.

But I’m not particularly worried about this bill.

Instances of actual anti-gay discrimination in the provision of services are infrequent. Even in the Deep South, there is little advantage to be had by turning down business from gay customers.

There’s just not much to be gained by alienating customers. Maybe a few moments of internet celebrity and the promise of a few new strident anti-gay sales, but “we don’t sell to those type of people” is not a very effective marketing plan. Most folks would rather stay out of your war – and out of your store – irrespective of their own beliefs.

And the evidence of that can be seen in that despite the anti-gay industry’s ever-vigilant search for fresh martyrs to parade, only a handful of Jesus-lovin’, sin-hatin’, concerned Christians have been found nationwide who have been willing to destroy their livelihood for the cause. Elane Photography, a couple of bakers, and a florist or two. Oh, and some cookie baker and a venue in Texas. Most of whom were not even required by ordinance or law to offer service to gay people.

But even if such discrimination were ubiquitous in Mississippi, this bill changes nothing. There is no corner of the state in which gay people are protected from discrimination. No bakers or florists or bed and breakfast inn masters are limited from turning away gay people at the door. There is not even one city ordinance in the state that requires equal service to gay customers.

As for the anti-gay efforts, this bill gains them nothing. It’s merely a public statement of derision towards a segment of their population.

However, it does have the potential to facilitate some outcomes that hardcore conservative Christians do not predict, and will not like. These bills almost always do.

Those, such as the Mississippi legislators, who seek laws that advantage conservative Christians suffer from too much belief in their own rhetoric. They are part of a worldview that has some misperceptions:

1. They are the only real people of faith.

It baffles me how this perception manages to keep hold when all evidence is to the contrary. But in the minds of these people, if you are a person of faith then you obviously believe the Levitical commands in precisely the same way they do.

They don’t consider that them there liberal sin-compromisin’ feel-goody pseudo-Christians will get the exact same legal rights under these sort of laws as True, Bible-believing, born-again People of God.

2. They are a persecuted people.

It may be hard to take seriously the notion that the state and local officials in Mississippi are in some way out to get the Christians. But when you believe that Satan is using the principalities and powers of the world to attack the Body of Christ, you can hear about some preacher who was arrested in Sweden and fear that Sheriff Billy Bob Honeycutt is about to do the same.

It hasn’t occurred to these legislators that real persecuted people – the religious minorities in Mississippi – may now actually have a tool by which to empower their freedom.

3. God’s hand is in whatever they do

There is a form of circular reinforcement that can result in astonishing stupidity. Much of what you hear from Pat Robertson is based in this thinking. It goes like this:

I am a child of God. I seek God’s will in my life in what I do and say. I believe that God speaks to my heart and inspires me to move in the direction that he knows is best in my life. Therefore, when I strongly believe something, I know that it is inspired by God. And as God never lies or works against that which is good, whatever batpoop idiotic nonsense that I am spouting at any given moment is backed up by the creator of the universe.

Because they all agree that God wants them to stand up against the homosexual agenda, and because the homosexaul lobby opposes this bill, then it must be inspired by God and a wonderful victory for His Kingdom.

And so they’ve passed a phenomenally stupid bill that is likely to bite them in the ass. In fact, it’s likely to have the exact opposite impact of what they expect.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. Remember in the 80′s when there was a big ruckus because some Bible Clubs had been restricted at some school or other? Well Congress rushed to fix that with the Equal Access Act, which required that if a school allowed any extra-curricular organizations then it had to allow all such groups.

And for about ten minutes there were Bible Clubs on a handful of campuses (until students realized that the idea of a Bible Club was much sexier than actually trying to read the book). But the largest impact of this law is the opposite of its intention; mostly, this law is what requires schools to allow gay-straight-alliances on campus. In court case after court case, anti-gay school boards have been told that if they want to ban support groups for LGBT kids, they also had to ban the chess club and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

It is, of course, far too early to know what kind of repercussions will result from the Mississippi Freedom Restoration Act. But here are a few scenarios that the language of the law would appear to cover:

Should there be a Muslim woman who is a state employee, local concerns or sensibilities will now have no say in her choice of clothing, provided that she has a sincerely held religious belief. Burka, baby!

Rastafarians, Native Americans, and others whose religious beliefs incorporate use of mind altering substances now have a much higher bar by which they are to be denied access to the implements of their worship. Now drug enforcement officers must prove “a government interest of the highest magnitude that cannot otherwise be achieved without burdening the exercise of religion”. I predict a large conversion to such faiths.

The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan are a religious organization. They have lost favor in the nation, even in the South, as social and civil disapproval has taken the forefront. And the federal Civil Rights Laws disallow discrimination against people on the basis of race, so this law will not override that protection. But it would protect the state employee who wants to wear KKK insignia to work. And it will cause all sorts of havoc.

And, most ironically, they were blind to the most obvious scenario, the one jumping up and down in front of them waving its arms:

“Exercise of religion” includes, but is not limited to, the ability to act or the refusal to act in a manner that is substantially motivated by one’s sincerely held religious belief, whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief.

One of the phenomena that we have seen recently is the deeply-held religious conviction on the part of some people of faith that denying gay people equality is an injustice and an immoral attack on a child of God. Some are rather visible, such as Episcopalians or UCC or Lutherans, in which the denomination is on their side. But some, such as a recent spate of Methodists, are willing to defy their church and risk defrocking in order to fulfill their fealty to God.

Even if no denomination states that it is sinful to discriminate against gay people, some clergy have made this case. And surely there is among the 82 counties in Mississippi at least one clerk who compelled by his faith to offer marriage certification to same-sex couples just as he would to opposite-sex couples. And this law says that state action cannot burden his religious act of faith.

Mississippi just opened for themselves a colossal can of worms. Funny how animus, arrogance, and self-righteousness can work that way.

Comments

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TampaZeke
April 2nd, 2014 | LINK

I knew my moment of pride wouldn’t last long!

Nathaniel
April 2nd, 2014 | LINK

Timothy, thanks for the second look. I had forgotten about federal-level rules that were designed to permit peyote use. Is there precedence for their application to permitting pot use?

I do see some problems with your hypothetical pro-equality clerk. The first is that while s/he may be permitted to approve the license, there is nothing to say the state must honor it. I have my doubts as to how this law could be stretched to force the state to recognize same-sex marriages. Then there is the little matter of the progress of the lawsuits overturning the anti-marriage laws. As soon as SCOTUS overturns them all, this hypothetical scenario would become moot. While it is a cute illustration of how this “religious freedom” law could backfire, I doubt it has any practical chance at reality.

Baker
April 2nd, 2014 | LINK

Actually, the frequency of “instances of actual anti-gay discrimination in the provision of services” — rather than “infrequent” (which is vague and relative) — is not known. We have only limited reports, and I doubt most instances are reported. Indeed, wherever anti-gay discrimination is legal, there’s no illegal act to be reported. Even when discrimination, legal or illegal, is reported, most instances don’t make headlines, much less result in a lawsuit. And while there may be “little [financial] advantage to be had by turning down business from gay customers”, I suspect there’s also little disadvantage to be suffered, especially if such cases are few or unreported. If “most folks would rather stay out of a war”, I suspect that also applies to most persons who’ve been discriminated against too. I suspect most would say little or nothing of consequence.

In regard to the claim that “this bill changes nothing”, I wonder what will be the effect of this law on any future attempts by Mississippi cities and towns to enact local anti-discrimination ordinances? Will this state law have to be repealed first? It is being reported in the news that “according to the Human Rights Campaign, the measure could undermine future state non-discrimination laws, interfere with licensing organizations that have professional regulations protecting LGBT individuals and undermine public university non-discrimination policies.” And it’s reported that the ACLU says “It exposes virtually every branch and office of the government to litigation; our state will have to spend taxpayer money to defend lawsuits.”

Likewise, if “this bill changes nothing”, then it does not empower or authorize any clerk “to offer marriage certification to same-sex couples”. Or more generally, what is the sense of claiming “this bill changes nothing” and then claiming it has “opened a colossal can of worms”?

tristram
April 2nd, 2014 | LINK

Timothy – This bill may have unintended consequences and open cans of worms for its proponents in the long run. But you can be sure that it will immediately have its intended consequence – making the everyday lives of lgbt people in that benighted state more uncertain and miserable. Kids all over the state will wake up tomorrow knowing that their state government felt it should pass special legislation to make it clear that gay people get no respect. The law is a license to bully in schools and workplaces (“Don’t like it? So sue me.”)

It will encourage a nurse to turn away someone whose life partner is dying in the emergency room; endanger the life of a kid whose pharmacist says “we don’t sell these (condoms) to queers”; empower a school principal to fire the English teacher for putting The Perks of Being a Wallflower on a reading list or reading from The Laramie Project in drama club; incite a waitress to say “if you wanna hold hands there are other places your kind can get dinner.”

This sort of stuff and a million other damages and indignities – all with the brand new, official seal of approval of the State of Mississippi. The bill will never affect me personally because “Don’t set foot in Mississippi” is near the top of my bucket list. But it breaks my heart because I know it’s going to make it that much harder for some kids to believe “It gets better” and to hang on until it does.

Michael
April 2nd, 2014 | LINK

The Right is so talented in the way they “wordsmith” to get favorable results in their polling and in the media. Examples include “death taxes” and “special rights for homosexuals” to substitute for the term “equality”. These bills seem like the perfect situation to turn the tables using the type of wordsmithing that they perfected. We need to start describing this issue as “special rights for fundamentalist Christians to impose their views on the rest of the population.”

Richard Rush
April 2nd, 2014 | LINK

Perhaps another reason not to feel “panicked about the Mississippi bill” is that it could be a deterrent to other states that may be considering similar bills. After all, how many states would want to be seen as emulating Mississippi, the most religious state in the nation, but also the state with the lowest education levels, plus the highest rates of poverty, obesity, diabetes, and infant mortality.

PLAINTOM
April 2nd, 2014 | LINK

You all are cordially invited to my Temples for Bacchus which will be opening soon in every Mississippi town with a college campus. Open 24/7 and obviously no age restrictions. We don’t even plan to ask the cities or state for any permits which would effect our deeply held religious beliefs (they don’t apply to us under this law). Clothing optional and all sacramental beverages available to the faithful for small donations. Non-believers will be barred from from our holy sites (those pagans with badges are easy to spot). Let the games begin. :)

Nick
April 2nd, 2014 | LINK

So big hearted of you to be “not panicked” about MS. Guess you don’t have to live (or die) there…

ebohlman
April 2nd, 2014 | LINK

Big problem I see is with pre-professional education programs. In many cases these programs need accreditation from the relevant professional association in the field, and many of those associations have non-discrimination requirements that the programs have to observe in order to attain their accreditation.

There have already been a few cases where homophobic students in counseling programs sued to be exempted from the requirements of the accrediting body that, in the course of their practicum, they must be non-discriminatory toward GLBT clients. They lost, but with a law like this they might not.

At this point a college or university with an accredited program is stuck: they’re now legally required to grant exemptions, but the accrediting body is within its rights to drop accreditation, at which point a degree from the school becomes professionally worthless. Among other things, that will impose severe hardship on students currently enrolled in the program (they’ll essentially have to transfer out of state and repeat much of their coursework).

Lord_Byron
April 3rd, 2014 | LINK

The purpose of this bill, at least as intended, is to put conservative christian religious beliefs above everyone else and above the law.

Jim Hlavac
April 3rd, 2014 | LINK

I have lived in Mississippi — Natchez and Woodville to be specific – and done business all over the state – and I am from NYC originally (accent and all), lived in West Palm Beach and Houston TX – now Phoenix AZ — let me say that “anti-gay” is by the person — not the “state” or any other collective. I have never experienced “anti-gay” in Mississippi – but I did experience it in Manhattan. I have, however, experience gay acceptance in Mississippi that would marvel San Francisco.

Then too – the law is modeled almost word for word on a law signed by Bill Clinton — The http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_Freedom_Restoration_Act — signed into law by “our friend” Bill Clinton — has been on the books for 20 years or so.
The words are nearly exactly the same – and if naught came of it federally in 20 years — I doubt it will in Mississippi.

Then too — no law of this type mentions “homosexuals” “Gays” or “LGBT” or any other group – nor do they use the word “Christian” or any such thing — they are so broad that a Muslim cabdriver might discriminate against a Baptist wearing a cross – and it be legal under the federal and state statutes.

And that’s where the funny part is — it’ll be the Muslim v Christian or Vice versa — or the Methodist v Presbyterian long before it’ll be “hetero” v “homo” — and thus I don’t worry and say let the law hoist them by their petards

KZ
April 3rd, 2014 | LINK

“And so they’ve passed a phenomenally stupid bill that is likely to bite them in the ass.”

Whoa, for a minute there, I thought you were talking about UGANDA and not Mississippi.

Nathaniel
April 3rd, 2014 | LINK

Richard, the answer to your question is North Carolina. We’ve been trying to emulate Mississippi for a few years now, including trashing our education system and all the attempts to keep gay people where they belong.

NancyP
April 3rd, 2014 | LINK

The state may allow discrimination by licensed professionals, but the national accrediting bodies / certifying boards can deny accreditation or board certification, and there isn’t a thing the offending refuse-to-treat professional can do about it, as long as the national boards stay committed.

Priya Lynn
April 3rd, 2014 | LINK

Timothy can’t see beyond his liberal big city surroundings. Its a whole different story for gays and lesbians in republican dominated small towns and the countryside.

NancyP
April 3rd, 2014 | LINK

The major use of these laws is to allow health care professionals to deny care to women seeking reproductive health services. This movement started with pharmacists refusing to fulfill birth control prescriptions. Some state laws were enacted to protect such pharmacists from lawsuit and from firing. The current bill adds another layer of coverage for pharmacists, paramedics, emergency room personnel, etc dealing with women. It may also cover uniformed civilians (police and fire) who refuse to deal with trespassing, vandalism/fire, and assault on Planned Parenthood and other institutional providers of birth control, day after pill, and/or abortion. Refusal of service to gays is an afterthought, an “added benefit” from their standpoint, to this type of bill.

Richard Rush
April 3rd, 2014 | LINK

Question: If a county clerk’s sincerely held religious belief requires the acceptance of same-sex marriage, is s/he protected under this new law if s/he issues a marriage license to a s-s couple?

Baker
April 3rd, 2014 | LINK

In light of the tremendous attention given to these types of bills of late, “refusal of service to gays” can hardly be considered merely an “afterthought” as these types of bills are currently making their way through various legislatures. Rather than an “added benefit”, it may be one of the primary motivations.

Baker
April 3rd, 2014 | LINK

Richard, I think it’s generally held that government has a compelling interest in preventing the problems that would result if clerks (or anybody else for that matter) were allowed to issue licenses (marriage, medical, driving, etc.) simply because that person decided it’s in keeping with her own personal religious visions. And in fact, the law expressly states that “Government may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” if it “is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” I think that would allow the government to fire the clerk and even to jail her, so that her exercise of her religion will not harm the public.

Richard Rush
April 3rd, 2014 | LINK

Baker, thanks for the detailed explanation. Admittedly, I have not read the bill.

Here is another scenario: Let’s suppose that SCOTUS produces a decision that mandates marriage equality in all fifty states, and let’s also assume that Mississippi’s law is still in effect. So, I wonder if a county clerk then refuses to issue a marriage license to a s-s couple based, of course, on sincerely held religious beliefs, would the state proceed to “fire the clerk and even jail him/her so that his/her exercise of religion will not harm the public.”

I’m trying to determine if the language of the law has been manipulated so that actions harming gay people are easily protected by invoking the law, while actions benefiting gays are much more difficult to protect when invoking the law.

Timothy Kincaid
April 3rd, 2014 | LINK

Priya Lynn,

The nearest town to where I grew up had a population of about 6,000. Not as small as some of the neighboring hamlets, but not exactly “liberal big city”, either.

Baker
April 3rd, 2014 | LINK

Richard, these sorts of laws generally provide that government must use “the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” The “least restrictive means” when a clerk has a religious objection to issuing particular licenses may not be the same as when a clerk is dead set on issuing bogus licenses. The harms are different, and the appropriate remedies can also be different. Why couldn’t the clerk when she has a religious objection (or other mental problem) with a particular license simply switch off with another clerk who is happy and competent to handle it? Is it any worse than when a clerk has to fetch her supervisor for occasional assistance? We don’t generally fire clerks for that, do we?

Richard Rush
April 3rd, 2014 | LINK

Thanks again, Baker.

Ben
April 4th, 2014 | LINK

Another conservative apologetics article from Timothy “here is why I, a well to-do white man, am not worried” Kincaid.

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