By Doug Porter
The culture wars aimed at dividing the nation are once again prominent in the media. Having lost battles in the courts and in the arena of public opinion, extremists have turned to state legislatures mired in the stone ages, thanks in large part to partisan gerrymandering.
Mississippi is the latest state to enact legislation allowing religious groups and private businesses to deny services to gay and transgender people in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling effectively legalizing same-sex marriage.
Schools and companies would be allowed to set “sex-specific standards or policies concerning employee or student dress or grooming.” In other words, women could be told not to wear pants in Mississippi.
North Carolina enacted similar legislation last month as a preventative measure to keep localities in line when it comes to enabling discrimination. There were no egregious examples of the religious or first amendment rights being trampled in the Tar Heel State; they passed this law because they could.
From the Tampa Bay Tribune:
After the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, passed an anti-discrimination law to protect the rights of gay and transgender citizens, the state Legislature called an emergency session. The Charlotte ordinance was supposed to take effect April 1.
In about 12 hours, a bill to overturn that was introduced, discussed and passed by the Republican-controlled House and Senate. The governor signed it.
The ‘Right’ to Be a Bigot
A series of Supreme Court cases provide the context for the hand-to-hand combat going on in the states over the right to be a bigot.
From The PrideLA:
Originally, the idea for “religious freedom” laws had no connection to same-sex marriage or gay rights. In the early 1960s, the Supreme Court took on a case called Sherbet v. Verner and with it established a basic standard for protecting the free exercise of religion. The government could pass laws that impacted free exercise if it was possible to demonstrate a “compelling interest.” An example of such a compelling interest might be protecting public safety — or, following enactment of civil rights laws, preventing discrimination based on race.
But a series of rulings during the early 1990s drew outrage when the federal courts allowed the government to infringe upon Native American religious practices — in part by withholding unemployment benefits from people who used peyote. The Court reasoned such laws were ok because they did not single out specific religions — even though the ruling effectively impeded the practice of certain faiths. Congress responded to the infringement by passing a federal Religious Freedom law. The Senate vote was overwhelming and bipartisan (97-to-3) and was signed by President Bill Clinton.
The federal religious freedom law said the government may not “substantially burden” the practice of religion without a “compelling interest.” And even if the government does have such an interest, the law said, it must shield the interest in the “least restrictive” way. The Supreme Court clarified that religious freedom law could apply only to federal action and that lead some state legislatures to pass their own laws. Most state constitutions already provided residents with similar guarantees.
Fast forward through 20 years of silence on the matter. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case that corporations could essentially act as people and create discriminatory rules if the corporate owners had “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Reaction to These Laws
A number of government and business leaders, along with high profile celebrities, have condemned to these laws.
From the Union-Tribune:
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, in response to Mississippi making it legal for people there to be denied service based on sexual orientation, instructed Minnesota state employees to refrain from any non-essential travel to that Southern state as long as its law remains in force.
The law that Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed Tuesday allows religious groups and private businesses to deny services to gay and transgender people and follows similar attempts in other states that have been made since last year’s Supreme Court ruling that effectively legalized gay marriage nationwide. Bryant, a Republican, said the law protects religious freedom. It takes effect July 1.
Dayton’s move Wednesday follows the same order he issued Saturday aimed at North Carolina over that state’s efforts to limit gay rights.
This week PayPal announced it was pulling a processing facility out of North Carolina, resulting in the loss of about 400 jobs. Several other corporations have insisted they will do the same if the law isn’t reversed.
According to the New York Times, the departments of Transportation, Education, and Housing and Urban Development are undertaking active reviews of the North Carolina law to determine whether it is a violation of civil rights.
Negative reactions to these laws have gone beyond the usual supporters of liberal causes. Here’s TV host Montel Williams:
“As a human being, a Christian, a conservative, an American who served 22 years in the military, I’m deeply saddened to be making a statement, for the third time this week, having been again reminded that there remains a class of people in America on whom it remains socially acceptable to visit discrimination under the guise of faith – our LGBT brothers and sisters. I will not be silent,” Williams said in a statement.
“I urge Mississippians to reject this ill advised attempt by the Legislature to erase all the progress Mississippi has made on tolerance and take it back to a very dark period in its history, and I look forward to sharing my view with Mississippi voters in person very soon.”
“I CANNOT be silent,” he added, “or I become complicit.”
Because there is no federal overarching civil rights bill prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, LGBT and allied civil rights advocates are pushing for the Equality Act, which has been introduced in Congress. It is not expected to even get a hearing.
The short answer is because cultural conservatives lost the battle over same-sex marriage.
On a summer day last year, a divided U.S. Supreme Court released a landmark opinion giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide, establishing a new civil right and handing gay rights advocates a historic victory.
Justice Anthony Kennedy voted along with the court’s four liberal justices and wrote the majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges. Each of the four conservative justices in the minority wrote his own dissent.
On June 26, nearly 46 years to the day after a riot at New York’s Stonewall Inn ushered in the modern gay rights movement, the high court decision sought to settle one of the major civil rights fights of this era. Kennedy’s opinion spoke of family, love and liberty.
“Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions,” Kennedy said. “They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
Culture Wars in Cleveland
As could be expected, it is ultimately more complicated than just losing a court case.
The Republican Party is facing a showdown at their Cleveland convention this year between social and economic conservatives. According to Politico, some of the GOP’s biggest donors are organizing an effort to draw up a party platform accommodating same-sex marriage.
In many election years, the Platform Committee’s decisions are relatively straightforward and align with the views of the presumptive nominee. In 2012, for example, Romney’s team played a major role in determining the platform. Yet this time, with less clarity about who the standard-bearer will be, the committee’s direction is up in the air.
Some, though, have begun pressing potential nominees. Phyllis Schlafly and Ed Martin, who oversee Eagle Forum, recently met with Donald Trump to voice concern about how gay marriage is addressed in the platform and to underscore its importance to social conservatives. Schlafly, an iconic 91-year-old conservative activist who has endorsed Trump, played a key role in pushing an anti-gay marriage position while sitting on the Platform Committee in 2012.
As both sides lay the groundwork for the convention, the battle between the mainstream and evangelical wings of the Republican Party over social issues has played out in other arenas.
Authoritarian Points of View
Finally, there’s the larger picture to be considered. Why is it considered necessary in some quarters of our society to foster a legal system enabling (or enshrining) discrimination?
The fundamental issue at play is the form of governance we live under. In response to changes in both the economic and social order, a school of thought has emerged favoring a more authoritarian society.
In the case of what’s popularly referred to as the culture wars, a theocratic approach towards governance has emerged, one that puts the values of religion as the foundation for a system. [Note: this line of thinking is not commonly accepted among people of faith, but all faiths have people that think this way.]
The Men of the Cloth…
In this sense, there is little difference between the much feared Sharia law and the Seven Mountains Dominionism of Senator Ted Cruz’s backers.
From Religious News Service:
They believe Christians must take dominion over seven aspects of culture: family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business and government. The name of the movement comes from Isaiah 2:2: “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains.”
…Vs One ‘Great’ Man
Another aspect of this trend towards authoritarianism manifests itself through the candidacy of Donald Trump. It holds that governance is best done via ‘great’ people. A big part of Trump’s candidacy has involved ginning up fear of the ‘other’ and selling the public on his Yuuuge ideas.
In this context, it does not make much difference who the ‘other’ is so long as the power of the state becomes lensed through an all-seeing leader. The leftish wing of the pundit class has been quick to call out Trump as a modern-day Mussolini.
His ideology and rhetoric are much more comparable to the European populist radical right, akin to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, the Danish People’s Party or Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. All of them use the common radical right rhetoric of nativism, authoritarianism and populism.
What fuels this sort of bitter backlash movement now? The late scholar Jean Hardisty who founded Political Research Associates argued in 1995 that a confluence of several historic factors has assisted the success of the right in the United States:
- a conservative religious revitalization,
- economic contraction and restructuring,
- race resentment and bigotry,
- backlash and social stress, and
- a well-funded network of right-wing organizations.
“Each of these conditions has existed at previous times in US history,” wrote Hardisty. She also noted they overlap and reinforce each other. This backlash is picking up speed. The Republican voter base in the Tea Party long ago shifted its attention away from fiscal restraint toward anti-immigrant xenophobia, banning abortion and pushing gay people back into the closet.
Regardless of its manifestation, what these ‘cultural wars’ are about is an attempt to redefine the American version of democracy. In one version, a ‘man of the cloth’ rules the roost. In the other, a man in a ‘business suit’ tells the people what’s best for them.
To my way of thinking, the messiness of representational governance is infinitely preferable to one man rule, regardless of what he’s wearing. Now, if we could only get big bucks into a back seat, things would be much better.
On This Day: 1933 – Prohibition ended in the United States. 1988 – Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to final terms of a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Soviet troops began leaving on May 16th. 2000– Fifteen thousand union janitors went on strike in Los Angeles.
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