Monday, March 30, 2015

On deaf ears

I was born here, and reared here, and I stayed for college here.  For law school, I went elsewhere because of a unique and wonderful opportunity. From law school I went to work in a place that was as much like here as I could find and still have the opportunities that were otherwise available to me.

And almost three years ago, I came back here to live.  I am and always have been an Arkansan, and even when I lived elsewhere I have never considered myself anything but.

The Arkansas of my youth was different from today.  Our politicians were genuine statesmen and stateswomen, Fulbright and Clinton and Pryor (the elder) and Bumpers, and numerous others, who valued balance and progress and intelligence.  We knew we were poor, but we knew we could do better.  We had, some of us, lived through perilous, ugly times, when our eyes were blackened, and when ignorance and hatred had made us for some hick backwater.  But it seemed for a time that we had managed to put that behind us.

During my fifteen-year absence, something changed.  I'm not sure whether it was me or the prevailing tenor of our public discourse, informed as it now is by religion, not reason.  The truth is that before I left, I was political; before I left, even though I was nominally a Christian I was not guided in any of my positions by religious duty; and before I left, I don't remember any of my contemporaries being particularly driven by that, either.

Somewhere along the way, while most of my hometown contemporaries grew up, they became what I can only charitably describe as religious zealots, driven as never before by an apparently pathological need to be seen by others as the Right Kind of Christian.  I suppose I could have found that change tolerable if the philosophy they espoused looked anything like that of Jesus himself.  These folks, however, follow a bastard form of Christianity--one that is fueled by piety and purity and status and in some cases the "prosperity" gospel first popularized by Oral Roberts and taken to new heights by Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar, one that seeks to inject itself into the most private affairs of others and to use the law to punish those whose actions make them disfavored.

Incredibly, these people mark themselves as persecuted, even as they control all of the levers of state and local government and most of the levers of the federal government.

Much has been written about HB1228, a so-called "Religious Freedom Restoration Act."  There are many reasons why this legislation is not needed.  It will foster hatred of others.  It will cause us economic damage.  It will not make anyone more free and its absence will not make anyone less free.  It is this last aspect that I'd like to focus on.

 In one sense, I am in favor of legislation that respects the rights of individual Americans to make their own religious choices and to excuse them from the general application of a law when it would genuinely burden their sincere religious practices or beliefs.  In fact, I would appreciate some protections for my own religious choices, because my own religious beliefs, being in the minority in which they stand, are under virtually constant attack from the Christians who are pushing this legislation.

But not all ends of a means are equally justifiable.  Standing in context, HB1228 is not designed to meet the laudable goal of making Arkansans more free in the general sense.  It is designed to provide cover for those who would do harm to disfavored minorities--particularly including sexual minorities including homosexuals, bisexuals, and the transgendered--out of a misguided sense that doing so somehow pleases Jesus.

Like it or not--and I like it, because I love freedom--we are living in an America today that has changed.  We are on the cusp of finally fulfilling the promise of our forefathers, that all of us are created equal, even as we are different, and that each of us meets the law and society on our own terms as Americans.  What has brought us there is not a law or a principle, but the recognition among a majority of Americans that our great nation belongs to us all, and that we must not use the instrumentalities of that nation to set apart a second, inferior class of American based on the different choices they make or characteristics that they possess.

Even in Arkansas, those who would oppose the growth of our American civilization to the mark set out at its start are in the minority.  And those of us who believe, as I do, that our great American principles mean something have, to be frank, grown tired of all of this yammering to the contrary.

The freedom of religion does not mean the right to discriminate in public accommodations or in ordinary commerce.  Freedom of religion means, in one sense, the right to confine the things that you do, or do not do, to your own conscience.  I am sick to death of this analogy, but I am compelled by the argument to comment on it:  If you are in the business of baking wedding cakes, then you can choose the conditions under which you will work based on the dictates of your individual conscience--for example, refusing to work on Sunday, if that is your sincere religious practice--but you must take all comers for the commercial transaction of cake-selling.  That is the only way that this works.  If you believe that baking a cake for a same-sex couple's wedding is a sin, then it's time to stop baking wedding cakes.

In another part of the standard analogy, the proponents of this legislation ask, why can't a Jewish deli owner be compelled to sell a ham-and-cheese sandwich to a customer who wants one?  This is a false analogy.  The deli owner (of any religion) who doesn't stock a particular meat doesn't sell that meat to anyone out of his own choice.  The more apt analogy would be a deli owner who will sell ham to customers to feed to their dogs but not to customers who want to eat it.  It is not the right of the vendor to interject himself into the customer's end of the transaction and impose his own moral views on their activities.

I have no problem with anyone for their own religious practices.  If you want to deprive yourself of something for religion's sake, that's your choice.  If you want to refrain from gambling at Oaklawn because you believe it is sinful, or if you want to want to abstain from alcohol out of religious duty, or if you want to carry on with an unwanted pregnancy because you believe abortion is wrong, then carry on.  You'll get no argument from me.

The problem isn't religious practice.  The problem is the earnest and insatiable desire of religious zealots to use the power of the government to impose their religious values on others.  That's at the root of HB1228 and of countless other pieces of legislation that have spewed forth from the 90th General Assembly.  What these people are doing and advocating might be entirely in conformity with what they believe their god calls them to do, but it is entirely at odds with what it means, fundamentally, to be an American in a free society.

Liberty is a blessing, but it comes with the caveat that if we are all free, some of us will do things that others of us don't like.  It is incumbent upon us as Americans to know where the line is drawn, between individual choices and the imperatives of civilization, and to set up our laws so as to balance the two to maximize the utility of the liberty that we all share.

I know it will fall on deaf ears, but I call on the governor to veto this piece of legislation. 

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