The bigotry that killed Arizona’s ‘conscience law’

When advocates of same-sex marriage pushed their case in the courts of both public opinion and law, they made sure to read the following language from that little card provided to them by the tolerance police: “No one will be forced to violate their religious beliefs if Adam can marry Steve and Madame can marry Eve.”

Much like the Miranda warnings that became famous after the Supremes decided that magic words were all that were needed to protect the right against self-incrimination, this nuptial disclaimer was supposed to make us all breathe easier about that pesky First Amendment right to free exercise.

Well, you can start choking.

Yielding to pressures reminiscent of Tony Soprano, Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed Arizona’s new conscience law, the one that protected people of faith from having to provide services to gay and lesbian couples who wanted a wedding cake, a commemorative photo album, a gossamer bridal gown or a jazzy band. The violent pushback against the law shows just how hollow that “your religious beliefs are safe” promise really is. A law that would have simply permitted private business owners to refuse to provide services that violated deeply held religious principles was called a subversive attempt to codify bigotry.

And where, pray tell, was the bigot hiding?

Why, in the kitchen, where the baked goods are kept.

And in the darkroom, where the photos are developed.

And in the basement, where the musical instruments are stored.

And in the dressing room, where the measurements are taken.

These are the safe houses of hate and prejudice, places where evil believers take refuge from the same-sex juggernaut.

This reasoning was both predictable and troubling. You just knew that when the Supreme Court dismantled part of the Defense of Marriage Act last year, and some states took up the crusade by passing laws to legalize gay nuptials, any hint of opposition would be labeled bigotry. In fact, this isn’t news. From the time that the first man took his boyfriend’s hand and said “I do … want a domestic partnership,” opposition to same-sex unions (whether based on the law or in faith) was considered tantamount to Bull Connor hosing someone down.

It’s not that I don’t get the anger from the LGBT community at the idea of some judgmental bakers, photographers and wedding planners. My ancestors were treated like trash because they fingered rosaries and believed that a virgin appeared in grottoes. (She did, by the way.) Anytime we are discriminated against because of something we hold dear, it rankles the soul.

But discrimination, hurtful as it can often be, is not necessarily illegal. It is also not necessarily bigotry. We make exceptions all the time for those who have certain spiritual “do not cross” lines, like the Quakers who were excused from combat duty because of their pacifism.

This was not about legal bars to same-sex marriage. This was about protecting someone against a lawsuit if he refused to bake a wedding cake. Telling people that they can’t get married is very different from telling them that you won’t celebrate their union. Not everyone has to like you, not everyone has to agree with you and not everyone has to serve you.

But, you will say, this was just like those segregated lunch counters in the South, when those racist crackers refused to break bread with black folk. Appealing as that analogy might be to the lazy mind, it’s not the same thing. Racial discrimination was never officially motivated by religious principle.

Yes, there were some miscreants who tried to use the Bible to say that a black man and a white woman couldn’t eat soup and touch elbows, but the racism that motivated the “segregation now, segregation forever” movement was very different from the faith-based belief that marriage is a sacred union between one man and one woman.

Why? Because some people who don’t have a bigoted bone in their bodies believe that marriage is a sacred union designed for procreation and the glorification of God. You can disagree with that, you can even find it laughable and antiquated. But it is a legitimate belief. Congress passed the Restoration of Religious Freedom Act to protect that belief, and others like it.

On the other hand, there’s nothing legitimate in pointing to the Bible to refuse dinner to an African American. Similarly, laws that protect religious freedom can’t be expanded to allow a business to exclude any person for any flimsy reason just because he can point to a Bible verse. The belief must be fundamental, and the requested service must directly violate that belief. There’s no reason to believe that this law wouldn’t have been narrowly applied.

We cannot legislate against hurt feelings. We can only hope that people learn to accept one another. Until then, no one should be compelled to choose between a courthouse bench and a wooden pew.

It’s a shame that Gov. Brewer let the noise distract her from that truth.

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

©2014 Philadelphia Daily News

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • No one wins in fight for legroom at 40,000 feet

    I’m 6-foot-2 and all leg, so I’m very sympathetic to folks who complain about legroom. However, like many tall people, I also have a bad back, so I’m very sympathetic to folks who want to recline their seats. Heck, I’m even sympathetic to the airlines that are cramming people into planes with the wild abandon of college freshmen filling their trunks for summer break.

  • When journalists become the story

    In recent weeks, and in very different environments, journalists have found themselves in the unusual position of becoming the subject of news stories rather than the people telling them. First, my Washington Post colleague Wesley Lowery and the Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly were arrested in a Ferguson, Mo., McDonald’s while covering protests against police brutality. Soon after, we learned that James Foley, a freelance journalist, was murdered by his Islamic State captors, an act that communicated the lethal tactics of that organization in the ugliest possible terms.

  • Al Sharpton, the White House’s mouthpiece

    As he has grown weary of Washington, President Obama has shed parts of his presidency, like drying petals falling off a rose.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category