Sunday, February 23, 2014

A hard truth from Arizona SB1062

Arizona's governor, Jan Brewer, has to decide whether she should sign SB1062, a controversial bill that will allow Arizona business owners to discriminate on the basis of any religiously held conviction. Many of the law's opponents note that one such particularly transparent reason for the bill is the widespread belief among conservative Christians that reviles homosexuality and and the looming reality of marriages for same-sex couples. Proponents of the bill argue that the bill is about protecting religious freedom, of course, in the usual sense where religious freedom and religious privilege get conflated.

Paresh Dave did a write-up about SB1062 for the LA Times, and in it he covered some of the arguments of those who support the bill. One of these, forwarded by attorney Jon LaRue, who helped write the legislation, almost appears to be a good argument for the law. LaRue said,
There is a law that bans discrimination at public accommodations based on religion in Arizona. Let’s pretend that I’m a bakery and that in my town here in Arizona, Westboro Baptist Church comes to picket a funeral of a soldier, and they tell me to bake a cake. They want it to say, "God hates ..." and that terrible word they use.

It would offend my dignity. I don’t want to give voice to that horrible message. Right now, they could sue me for discriminating based on their religious beliefs. If the Arizona courts went the way of the New Mexico courts, I would lose and if they targeted me,  I could lose my business because of the damages I’d have to pay out. I would never be able to assert my Religious Freedom Restoration Act defense because it’s available only if the government is prosecuting me.
I'll admit that when I first read this statement, I was taken by it. And then I remembered the First Amendment, a two-edged blade that many conservative Christians absolutely love when it cuts in their favor, though they seem to hate it the rest of the time. LaRue's argument appeals to our dignity and our better moral sense, but that doesn't matter. Our dignity and our better moral sense aren't the law (and if they were, conservative Christianity would likely rue the result). That's freedom, and to quote LaRue again, "Freedom is too important to leave to chance."

I do not like the idea of being required by law to write "God hates fags!" or any other obscene and hateful thing on a cake ordered from my bakery (if I owned one). And that's too bad for me and the worse for my luck that they chose my establishment. As much as I am repulsed and outraged by the message of the Westboro Baptist Church, if I found myself in that situation, I would face a choice. LaRue pointed it out for us: discriminate or do not discriminate. If the price of discrimination is losing one's business, however apparently noble the reason, then that's the price of religious freedom. It does not come for free.

Here's the thing, though. Let's take a moment to explore the singular reason that such a disagreeable thing as this is the price of religious freedom. If we refuse to lie to ourselves, it is because religion is uniquely poised to be utterly vile for indefensible reasons, a trait we have decided it is paramount to defend above any insult to our dignity.

Jon LaRue is appalled by the notion that he should have to promote the hateful message of the Westboro Baptist Church, which it is their religious freedom to hold and promote. The only reason he doesn't see it this way is that LaRue gives special prioirity to his own beliefs, which he holds on the same justifications given by the Westboro Baptists: a particular reading of the Bible and faith. His bill, obviously, isn't about religious freedom. It's about using religion to protect the privilege of a group of sufficiently mainline, sufficiently conservative to act like their beliefs are really the only ones that matter.

LaRue must envision an America where religion means only those beliefs he agrees with or is willing to tolerate--whatever intolerance those rain upon the people that his religion vilifies as sinners, degenerates, and infidels. The only reason he has that opportunity is because every American citizen is precluded from acting upon the same idea. I find Christianity disturbing and repugnant, for example, and LaRue's only protection from my opinion is the same one forcing him to pipe "God hates fags!" out of a confectioner's bag at the risk of his livelihood if confronted with the request from a sufficiently sincere believer in the Westboro mold.

And let's be honest. Jon LaRue, and those like him, dislike the message of the Westboro Baptist Church because they believe that the Westboro Baptists pretend to know something they don't know about the Creator of the Universe, namely that He hates fags. But Jon LaRue, and those like him, along with all other religious believers, pretend to know but don't know everything they claim to know about God. For many of the people who desire this bill to pass into law, of course, this pretense includes the proposition that "God hates fags"--but just enough to protect their "right" to act upon it by denying wedding arrangements to same-sex couples, even if not quite so much as to put it in all caps on a hideous placard protesting a military funeral.

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