On the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, religious institutions want freedom to discriminate
Wednesday, July 2, marks the 50th anniversary of the day that Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law banned discrimination in schools, polling places, at the workplace, and in public accomodations on the basis of race, religion, sex, or national origin.
A couple of weeks ago, President Obama announced that, in light of the fact that Congress did not pass legislation that would end legal discrimination against LGBT persons, he would sign an executive order that would prohibit agencies with government contracts from discriminating against people on the basis of sexual orientation. On Monday, he expanded those protections to include sexual identity. This merely states that companies who want federal government contracts are not allowed to fire people based on their sexual orientation or sexual identity.
Then on Tuesday, religious leaders from around the country signed a letter addressed to the president asking for a religious exemption to the executive order. (Even though they are not compelled to follow the order, of course, unless they want to enter into contracts with the federal government.) The letter reads, "While the nation has undergone incredible social and legal change over the last decade, we still live in a nation with different beliefs about sexuality. We must find a way to respect diversity of opinion."
In 1963, Governor George Wallace of Alabama took the oath of office and said, "In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." While that phrase has undoubtedly gone down in "racist rhetoric history," at the time, it represented one aspect of genuine "diversity of opinion." In Wallace's case, his opinion on the merits of segregation was based, at least in part, on religious conviction. (It should be noted that Wallace later apologized to civil rights leaders for his promotion of segregation.)
Diversity of opinion is one thing. But when it comes to discrimination, we are not just talking about diversity of opinion. We are instead talking about an entire group of people who, if discrimination is allowed, face insecurity in their livelihoods and in their lives. Many of them have children. Many of them have partners. Many care for elderly parents and other family members. LGBT people are a part of our communities. They pay taxes. They vote. They are full citizens of this country, and 50 years ago, the Civil Rights Act guaranteed that citizens of this country should have a right to work and live without fear of discrimination.
So as religious people, we have to ask ourselves: Do we really want our legacy in this moment to be that we asked for special permission to discriminate against members of our community and citizens of our country?
Image: LBJ Presidential Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.