Yesterday, Governor Jan Brewer of
vetoed a “Religious Freedom” bill that would have allowed businesses to
discriminate against the LGBT community on the basis of religious beliefs (Arizona SB
1062, which became known as the anti-gay bill). The
governor wisely observed that she saw nothing in the bill that had to do with
religious freedom, stating that it “does not address a specific concern
relating to religious liberty.” She reminded her constituents that the state
had stood for religious values, but also stood in support of non-discrimination. It was a
wonderful return to sanity after a long series of politically regressive
legislation in various fields across the country. It is unfortunate that we
have seen many people use the cloak of religious freedom to justify their own bigotry
and hatred. Arizona
That Course Was Charted Before
I have witnessed first-hand the subtle, and not-so-subtle, use of religious values to justify hatred and prejudice. I am a product of public education, having entered public school in 1961 at the age of six, and continuing until 1973 when I graduated from high school. All of my public education occurred in “the heart of
Dixie” as the state of proudly proclaims of itself. I saw
the struggles for civil rights on television while listening to adults lament
the sad state of affairs in which the government would impose racial
integration upon the fine citizens of our state. It was no coincidence that a
plethora of Christian private schools sprung up across the South in the 1970s
when full integration of public schools was finally achieved, almost 20 years
after Brown v. Board of Education was decided by the Supreme Court. Alabama
I also witnessed the spin that Christian private schools put on their mission statements. Their primary claim was that “God had been taken out of the public schools,” citing the removal of prayer in schools and the teaching of evolution instead of creationism. Being a somewhat observant high school student, I couldn’t help noticing the actual progression of events that motivated the establishment of so many “Christian academies” throughout the South.
First of all, there is the matter of teaching evolution in schools. The landmark court case that established the ability of schools to freely teach accepted science was, of course, the Scopes Trial in 1925. It became clear from that time on that schools could not disallow the teaching of scientific theory on the basis of religious belief. By the time I entered public school, it was well established that science textbooks in public schools included the theory of evolution. Religious conservatives did not like this turn of events, but they were not motivated to create their own school system.
Next, fast forward to 1963 when the Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not force students to participate in prescribed public prayer. Religious conservatives were upset by the removal of prayer from schools, they railed against the notion, but they were not motivated to create their own school system. Even though many religious leaders were shocked by the Supreme Court decision regarding prayer in schools, and many were upset by the increasing "secularization" of society as evidenced by the ascendancy of science and the teaching of evolution in the classroom, there was little movement toward the establishment of church-based schools at the elementary or high school level.
Within a few more years, however, racial segregation was no longer allowed in public schools. It was a tumultuous time in the South, but it was also difficult across the country. My state became infamous for the image of Governor George Wallace standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama to prevent the admission of black students. In my hometown, integration was phased in from 1967 to 1971. Suddenly, religious conservatives became motivated to create their own private schools. They would claim a return to God and sacred values to be their raison d'être. The timing, however, was indisputable. It was, in fact, racial integration in public schools that spurred the sudden rise in private schools across the South.
Can We Learn from the Past?
Today, we are seeing yet again the use of religion to justify bigotry and hatred. It is distressing to see religion joining hands with hate more readily than siding with justice. Religion, after all, is only as good as those who practice it. There is healthy religion which calls us to a higher path of love, compassion and social justice; and there is unhealthy religion which encourages us to stay where we are comfortable and cast stones at anyone who is not part of our particular group.
Thankfully, Arizona has backed away from legalizing bigotry and has not allowed hatred cloaked as religion to hold sway. There are yet other states which are considering similar discriminatory bills. Perhaps the time has come for good people to say no to the voices of hate.