Religious Liberty Is a Just Cause — Except When It’s Used to Justify Intolerance

Segregationists had ‘public safety’ as an excuse. Is religious liberty the new straw man?

Nine black children, three boys and six girls, are escorted by US paratroopers in full battle dress 25 September 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas from Central High School after President Eisenhower decided the day before to send Federal troops in Arkansas and bring the state under Federal control to protect black children against white demonstrators.
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Ron Fournier
Feb. 27, 2014, 4:29 a.m.

A quarter-cen­tury ago, I was a le­gis­lat­ive re­port­er in Arkan­sas as­signed to a ce­re­mony hon­or­ing Daisy Bates, the civil rights gi­ant who led the Little Rock school in­teg­ra­tion ef­fort in 1957. As Gov. Bill Clin­ton spoke and Bates beamed, a hunched old man limped in­to the room and leaned against a back wall.

“Gov. Faubus?” I asked.

“That would be me,” replied Or­val Eu­gene Faubus, the former six-term Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor who de­fied the 1954 U.S. Su­preme Court rul­ing end­ing sep­ar­ate but equal schools, for­cing Pres­id­ent Dwight D. Eis­en­hower to en­force Brown vs. the Board of Edu­ca­tion with fed­er­al troops. Nine black stu­dents ““ Bates’s “Little Rock Nine” ““ were es­cor­ted in­to Cent­ral High.

“I’m proud of how I pro­tec­ted ‘em,” Faubus said, nod­ding his head to­ward Bates. “It had noth­ing to do with race, ya know. It had everything to do with safety.”

That brush with his­tory came roar­ing back to me this week as Ari­zona Gov. Jan Brew­er, a Re­pub­lic­an, con­sidered a bill that would have giv­en busi­ness own­ers the right to re­fuse ser­vice to gay men, les­bi­ans and oth­er people on re­li­gious grounds.

She ve­toed the meas­ure late Wed­nes­day, say­ing it didn’t ad­dress a press­ing need (“I have not heard of one ex­ample in Ari­zona where busi­ness own­ers’ re­li­gious liberty has been vi­ol­ated”) and dis­trac­ted from her agenda (eco­nom­ic growth and the state’s troubled child pro­tec­tion sys­tem).

Con­ser­vat­ives ar­gue that it’s a stretch to com­pare Jim Crow laws to lim­its on gay rights. “Sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion is not race — and per­mit­ting what would most def­in­itely be a very small num­ber of ob­ser­v­ant Chris­ti­ans to ex­er­cise their right of con­science is vastly dif­fer­ent from per­vas­ive and state-sponsored ra­cism,” wrote Matt Lewis for The Daily Caller. He makes a fair point, but Lewis shouldn’t dis­miss the ana­logue as a self-serving search for “the mor­al high ground.” There’s more to it.

For me, it starts with the time I spent in Arkan­sas with Faubus, Bates and Clin­ton, sev­er­al mem­bers of the Little Rock Nine and count­less oth­ers touched by the 1957 crisis. Faubus began his ca­reer as a pro­gress­ive Demo­crat who de­seg­reg­ated state buses and pub­lic trans­port­a­tion and con­sidered the pos­sib­il­ity of in­tro­du­cing multi-race schools after his 1954 elec­tion. A chal­lenge from his right promp­ted Faubus to ad­opt a se­greg­a­tion­ist stance, which he disin­genu­ously in­sisted was not a mat­ter of race. With pub­lic opin­ion so strongly against the Su­preme Court rul­ing in 1957, Faubus ar­gued that in­teg­rat­ing would un­der­mine the safety of all stu­dents.

Safety was his straw man. Re­li­gious liberty, like pub­lic safety, is a just cause, ex­cept when it’s used to jus­ti­fy in­tol­er­ance.

“This bill “¦ bars gov­ern­ment dis­crim­in­a­tion against re­li­gious ex­er­cise,” Tony Per­kins, head of the con­ser­vat­ive Fam­ily Re­search Coun­cil, said of the Ari­zona meas­ure, “so by veto­ing this bill, Gov. Brew­er is say­ing she sup­ports gov­ern­ment dis­crim­in­a­tion against people’s re­li­gious free­dom.”

No, that’s not what she’s say­ing. Brew­er no more sup­ports re­li­gious dis­crim­in­a­tion than Eis­en­hower en­cour­aged vi­ol­ence in pub­lic schools. Per­kins knows bet­ter, and his in­flam­mat­ory lan­guage hurts his cause.

To be clear, I worry about in­fringe­ments on per­son­al liber­ties un­der Pres­id­ents Obama and Bush, and I con­sider re­li­gious free­dom a corner­stone of Amer­ic­an demo­cracy. I em­path­ize with the views of Per­kins and oth­ers, but I am sus­pi­cious when people use re­li­gion to mar­gin­al­ize oth­ers. Like Mi­chael To­masky of The Daily Beast, I hear echoes of the se­greg­ated South.

“n 1901, Geor­gia Gov. Al­len Cand­ler de­fen­ded un­equal pub­lic school­ing for Afric­an Amer­ic­ans on the grounds that “God made them negroes and we can­not by edu­ca­tion make them white folks.” After the Su­preme Court ordered pub­lic schools in­teg­rated in Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion, many se­greg­a­tion­ists cited their own faith as jus­ti­fic­a­tion for of­fi­cial ra­cism. Ross Barnett won Mis­sis­sippi’s gov­ernor­ship in a land­slide in 1960 after claim­ing that “the good Lord was the ori­gin­al se­greg­a­tion­ist.” Sen­at­or Harry Byrd of Vir­gin­ia re­lied on pas­sages from Gen­es­is, Levit­i­c­us and Mat­thew when he spoke out against the civil rights law ban­ning em­ploy­ment dis­crim­in­a­tion and whites-only lunch coun­ters on the Sen­ate floor.”

The Bible is both a holy book and a book of loop­holes, open to broad in­ter­pret­a­tion and, at one time, the source of ra­cist in­spir­a­tion.  My takeaway: In this great and di­verse coun­try, we are cap­able of pro­tect­ing people’s right to ex­press their faith and wor­ship freely without tramp­ing oth­ers’ rights to live freely.

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