They are called “religious freedom laws” by their backers. But the recent bills signed by the governors of Mississippi and North Carolina are anything but that. Critics rightfully call them anti-gay laws, but they are more than that. The new laws are licenses to discriminate at will — to deny service and jobs, to ostracize — while hiding behind the pretext of the free exercise of religion.
The legislation signed by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant on April 5 gives businesses, state employees, individuals and organizations protection if they choose to deny services to someone based upon “religious objections.” We all know the test case by now: A wedding cake maker refuses to sell pastry to a gay couple because their lifestyle violates the baker’s religious convictions. That kind of discrimination is now protected in Mississippi.
In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory signed a hastily drafted bill to block the city of Charlotte’s new ordinance outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The Charlotte ordinance also denies transgender people access to bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity.
It is noteworthy that much of the negative reaction to state efforts to legalize bigotry is coming from the business community — which threatens a state’s bottom line. One of the first things to happen after North Carolina passed its law was that PayPal canceled its planned move to the state. And it was pressure from Disney and the NFL that persuaded Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to veto the “religious liberty bill” sent to his desk. Then in Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed a similar bill, calling it “bad for business.”
The truth is that these laws are more than just bad for business. They are bad for every state in which they have been passed and seek to do nothing more than permit discrimination under a flimsy veil of “religious freedom.” We hoped there would be an end to efforts to treat people differently based upon their sexual orientation when the Supreme Court decided last year to make marriage equality the law of the land. But not everyone has embraced equality for LGBT Americans. And they are trying to use the inviolable First Amendment as a way to roll back the rights LGBT people now enjoy. It won’t work. And it shouldn’t.
Once you start permitting discrimination based upon claimed “religious beliefs,” what is to stop a restaurant or hotel from declaring that, for religious reasons, it won’t serve Jews? Or blacks. Or Muslims. The days of hateful signs that read “No dogs or Jews allowed” are thankfully behind us. Someone better tell the wedding cake maker.