This last week has given us two important opportunities to reflect on civil rights and religious freedom in American society.
Wednesday was Harvey Milk Day, commemorating the birthday of the groundbreaking LGBTQ rights activist, and last Friday the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, which would extend the provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to members of the LGBTQ community.
In the majority of U.S. states (including Oklahoma) it remains legal to discriminate against people based on gender identity and sexual orientation in such important areas as employment, housing, banking, education, access to public spaces and programs and everybody’s favorite civic duty, jury service.
The fact that, 55 years after the Civil Rights Act, it’s still perfectly legal to violate people’s civil rights is worth noting on the heels of Harvey Milk Day, because it shows how far we have yet to come in the fight in which Milk laid down his life.
Milk, after being forced to resign from his commission as a naval officer due to his sexuality, and after losing three elections, became one of the first openly gay elected officials in the U.S. when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977.
He championed anti-discrimination measures and opposed state legislation that sought to discriminate against LGBTQ-owned businesses based on (can you guess it?) claims of “religious freedom.” Through his pragmatism and charismatic leadership, Milk formed coalitions for equality that spread far beyond the LGBTQ community, to include women, Asians, Hispanics, the disabled and even teamsters.
Milk knew he was risking his life. He received regular death threats. But, he persisted, resigning himself to the reality that he probably would die for the cause of equality.
That prediction was proven true on Nov. 27, 1978, when a former city supervisor assassinated Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.
In a recording Milk made, to be played in the event of his assassination, he issued this challenge to us all: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country.”
A lot of closet doors have been destroyed since Milk’s death, but the barriers of discrimination he faced remain in place, and in states like Oklahoma, have been made more unjust and oppressive in recent years.
House passage of the Equality Act last Friday was momentous, not because it is likely to make it into law — the Republican-controlled Senate and president stand firmly in the way of equality becoming reality — but because it was the first time such legislation has made it to a full vote in either chamber of Congress. Meager progress, but progress just the same — and progress that may well come to full realization, depending on how the 2020 elections turn out.
And that latter possibility of equality becoming reality is precisely what has some conservatives rushing to wrap the last vestiges of their white-straight-Christian-conservative-male-dominant society in the legitimacy of “religious freedom.” Passage of the Equality Act is new. Conservatives’ tactics in using “religious freedom” to oppose it are not.
Well into the civil rights era of the 1960s, segregation and businesses’ refusal to serve African Americans were justified as matters of “religious freedom.” Their argument was well-practiced, because it had previously been used to justify slavery and Jim Crow laws and to oppose women’s suffrage and civil rights.
In 1948, former New Deal staffer Daniel Richberg warned American society the Federal Fair Employment Practices Act would force good, white Christians into associations they might find “repulsive … not because of any narrow prejudice, but because of … profound religious convictions.” Richberg’s argument, in the wake of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, sounds bigoted and hateful (because it is), but it is precisely the same argument being made under the guise of “religious freedom” to oppose LGBTQ equality today.
In every instance in American history in which white, Christian men have had their (our) monopoly on power and civil rights challenged, they (we) have fallen back on “religious freedom” as the cheapest and surest way to forestall liberty, equality and, dare I say, a truly Gospel-inspired way of treating fellow human beings.
As Yale Divinity School professor Tisa Wenger noted in 2017 in The Washington Post, “the scope and meaning of religious freedom have been constantly contested throughout American history — for every group would like to use this powerful value to protect its other beliefs.” In this case those “other beliefs” just happen to be that LGBTQ people should be marginalized and oppressed, all in order to assuage some conservatives’ weird obsession with other people’s genitals.
None of this should be construed as an attack on the right to freely practice our faith, whatever it may be. That is a sacrosanct right, enshrined in the Constitution. But, that does not give anyone the right, from either end of the spectrum, to impose their religious convictions on others in the secular sphere, and to misuse and repress their neighbor through old-fashioned bigotry and fear, masquerading as “religious freedom.”
For those who favor equality, the tide has turned. For those who oppose it, well, the tide has turned. According to Public Religion Research Institute, a majority of Americans in every age group, both Republican and Democrat, favor laws guaranteeing equality for LGBTQ people – 79 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of Republicans.
We all, collectively, need to embrace, with open arms, hearts and minds, the fact that — whether it’s through the Equality Act, the courts, or some future legislation — the slow, painful but inevitable progression toward equality in this country will reach its goal. To those who can’t stomach this, please be assured: Like the slavers, segregationists and anti-suffragists before you, future generations will do their best to forget and regret you.