“Religious Liberty” — The right wing’s unholy weapon against social progress

LGBTQ activists and their allies protest unfair immigration policies at a rally outside the White House on Sept. 9, 2014. AP Photo
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In their endless campaign to reverse the gains of women, LGBTQ folks, workers, and people of color, right-wing politicians have now turned their attention to the bathroom.

Goading panic by counting on ignorance and sexual anxieties, politicians like Gov. Pat McCrory (R-N.C.) declare that male-to-female transsexuals using women’s bathrooms, showers and locker rooms will result in the sexual molestation of heterosexual women. Several other states, in the name of “religious freedom,” have recently caused a storm by enacting state laws that deny transsexuals and gender non-conforming people the right to use restrooms that fit their gender identity.

This campaign is about much more than who uses which bathroom. Much of the new legislation is sponsored by the infamous American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the same corporate-funded, union-busting bunch that has crafted Stand Your Ground — “shoot first” and racist voter-registration laws. In North Carolina and Arkansas, ALEC-modelled state legislation “to protect religious liberty” has actually banned cities and counties from raising the minimum wage or setting their own anti-discrimination ordinances.

An ugly history. Claims of religious rectitude and “God’s will” have been used throughout the history of the United States — to uphold slavery and segregation, for example, to justify obscene wealth and immense poverty. And to oppose universal suffrage and women’ access to abortion.

Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, proclaimed that slavery was “established by decree of Almighty God…” In 1868, a Pennsylvania judge used the same argument to rule in favor of segregated rail cars. And in 1959, in Loving v. Virginia, in which an interracial couple was convicted under the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, the judge ruled that God created the different races inhabiting different continents and “the fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

Multi-millionaire Pat Robertson, one-time evangelical presidential candidate, once famously proclaimed that feminism encourages women to practice witchcraft.* Today, he is “simply appalled” by the negative reaction to North Carolina’s new anti-LGBTQ law, which he thinks is “perfectly reasonable.”

The intersection of race and sex can be a powerful tool for a ruling class desperate to maintain its divide and conquer routine against massive popular anger. Historically, and still today, the mythical rape of white women by Black men fueled Jim Crow atrocities. Likewise, just as LGBTQ people have been branded as pedophiles, transsexuals are now being depicted as rapists.

In fact, the reverse is true. In our culture it is much easier for a woman to “pass” as a man. But for a male-to-female transsexual to enter a men’s bathroom is to risk shame, physical violence, and even death. At least 21 transsexuals were violently murdered in 2015, most of them people of color.

States’ rights vs. human rights. Ultra-conservative ideologues have long abused states’ rights guarantees in the Constitution to promote defiance of federal laws. For example, states have asserted the “right” to segregate schools and neighborhoods, and discriminate against women and immigrants. The Civil War was fought because the South claimed “states’ right” to slavery.

The right to religious freedom has been similarly abused. When Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993, it was at least partly about preserving the rights of religious minorities like the Amish, Native Americans and Sikhs.

But recently, in state after state, including Indiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Arkansas, Republican-dominated state houses have turned the whole issue of religious prejudice upside down, declaring that the U.S. majority (white Christians) are victims of federal government mistreatment!

Instant outrage. In every state, starting with Indiana, there has been a thunderous reaction to such cynical abuse of religious freedom. Everyone from street activists to human rights councils, businesses and trade groups, tech companies and entertainers has joined the chorus of protests.

In North Carolina, grassroots groups were quick to react. LGBTQ activists and organizers of the $15 per hour movement have teamed up to sponsor petition campaigns and sit-ins at the state capitol. Amid calls for boycotts, travel agents report significant tourist cancellations. And there has been a rising flood of lawsuits filed to overturn the new laws.

In the corporate world, American Airlines and Bank of America and others have protested that such policies are bad for business. Disney threatened to pull production if the governor of Georgia didn’t veto the state’s “religious freedom” law. In Indiana, Yelp and Angie’s List warned they would scale back planned expansion. Even that bastion of male supremacy, the NFL, threatened to cancel further bowl games.

Naturally, big businesses have not suddenly grown a social conscience. But they know that their consumers and employees do have one, and that the majority stands with their LGBTQ sisters and brothers.

Bigots back off. All the pressure from LGBTQ activists and supporters has forced the bigots to back away and won impressive victories. Gov. Mike Pence (R) Indiana was forced to reverse legislation with a new law that cannot be used by businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Under intense economic pressure, the governor of Georgia vetoed that state’s bill. Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina indicated she would not sign such a bill. And in Tennessee, the religious freedom bill was withdrawn by its sponsor, wary of several court cases around the country.

Right-wing politicians and exponents know that they are massively outnumbered when it comes to social policy. The majority of U.S. residents support women’s reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, equal opportunity and a host of other practices that are anathema to the privileged. So in the past 20 to 30 years, evangelicals and other reactionaries shifted from attempting massive public pressure and began to focus on state and local elections and lower courts.

Today, they have created a host of laws — everything from restrictive voter ID laws to attempts to abolish the legal right to abortion — including nearly 200 anti-LGBTQ state bills introduced just this year.

The job ahead. Rev. William Barber, founder of Moral Mondays — a movement to protest North Carolina’s voter suppression laws — points out that the current attack on LGBTQ rights in his state is not about religious liberty at all. It’s about “dividing an increasingly diverse electorate.” Our job ahead is to connect the struggles and stop these oppressive attacks.

Send feedback to the author at fsnews@mindspring.com.

*The full quote:

“The feminist agenda … encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” — Pat Robertson

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