Friday, April 4, 2014

Updated: Religious Freedom Laws

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant (R) today signed into law the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act which allows Mississippians to sue or use as a legal defense the claim that any government policy, law, regulation, or ordinance places a burden on their free exercise of religion.  It also adds "In God We Trust" to the state seal.  The new law does not, however, allow employees to sue their employer by claiming the employer infringes on the employees' religious practices.

As I noted in my earlier post, at least 18 states (16 plus now KY and MS) already have these laws on the books.  A study by Wayne State law professor Christopher Lund also notes that these laws rarely lead to the successful defense of discriminatory acts.  For example, it is difficult to claim your deeply conservative Christian values force you to deny a wedding cake to a lesbian couple when you are willing to make cakes celebrating a Pagan solstice party, divorce, new grant to study cloning, etc. as recently was the case in Oregon.  Apparently to use these laws as a legal defense you would have to show you consistently apply your religious values in your dealings with customers.  Unfortunately, these laws also put the government in the position of differentiating consistent theological principles from discrimination seeking to hide behind religion.  Ironically, these 'religious freedom restoration' laws bring the courts into defining religion.

What is perhaps the true aim of these recent legislative attempts and new statutes is to make a political statement.  This isn't a new phenomenon.  Former Confederate states added the Confederate flag to their state flags to make a statement.  Mississippi amended its state flag in 1894, and in 2001 state residents voted down a proposal to remove the Confederate battle flag widely associated nationally with racists and rednecks.  Similarly, the Catholic organization Knights of Columbus spearheaded the addition in 1954 of the words "under God" into the US Pledge of Allegiance -a previously thoroughly secular pledge.  Symbols matter and are often appropriated by political agendas by groups across the political spectrum.  Take for example the recent debacle in South Carolina where a little girl's suggestion that the state adopt the wooly mammoth as the state fossil unleashed various amendments pushing a Creationist agenda.

These recent religious freedom laws underscore a symbolic resistance to advances in gay rights and a growing pushback to a politicized conservative Christianity.  Yet, as an observer from the South, it is interesting to note the massive media attention and pushback that states like Kansas and Arizona received over their religious freedom bills.  In Kentucky in 2013 and now in Mississippi in 2014 you don't see anything close to the pushback.  Perhaps the relative silence when the KY and MS legislatures beat their Bibles reflects a national attitude that much of the South is like a Confederate reservation where people can continue to live with 19th century values?  I've noticed when there is an anti-gay incident or attack in New York or another urban area, many commentators react against the perpetrators. When a similar anti-gay incident happens in the South, many commentators lash out at the entire state or the South as a whole.  Similarly, I see a number of my fellow Southerners view the diverse populations of cities and urban suburbs where the vast majority of Americans live as not the "real Americans" and erroneously paint Democrats and Democratic-voting areas as "welfare queens" and "takers".  In fact, data shows that most of America's economic production comes from its cities and urban states that in fact tend to vote Democratic.  Thus, the older, poorer, more rural red state areas are generally the "takers" who receive far more in Federal benefits than they pay in via taxes.  

My point here is that laws like the religious freedom bills are more about political theater than policy.  They enhance stereotypes that are not universal in these states, and they highlight the differential treatment and attention given to some states by the national media and social networks.  The Culture Wars continue and while same-sex marriage sweeps the country MS' conservatives can now proudly point to the "In God We Trust" on their state seal.  

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