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February 14, 2014 12:50 PM A Godly Ghetto Backed by the State

By Ed Kilgore

In a couple of posts this week responding to Damon Linker’s fears that “secular liberals” were in danger of making life intolerable for people with religious objections to contraceptives (or as they would have it, “abortifacients”) and same-sex marriage, I have suggested that religious conservatives need to toughen their skins and learn to live with those who do not share their interpretation of (or belief in) the Will of God.

A bill now moving through the Kansas legislature shows which side in the fight over “rights” is truly the aggressor, per this description from Jamelle Bouie:

On Wednesday, the Kansas House of Representatives took a step back to the 1890s with a shameful bill that borrows from Jim Crow to legalize discrimination against gay couples. Approved by a vote of 72 to 49, House Bill No. 2453 would allow businesses and government employees to deny service to same-sex couples on the basis of their religious beliefs. The law specifies businesses with “public accommodations,” but—in effect—that covers almost everything.
What does this mean in the real world? If you and your partner want to go buy groceries, but the owner—or manager—doesn’t “agree” with your relationship, they can refuse you service. If you want to go the movies, and the owner decides she’s uncomfortable—she can kick you out. Hotels can deny entry, gyms can deny access, and restaurants can eject you without consequence.
Obviously, some gay couples will want to sue. But under the law, anyone who turns away a gay couple is immune to a civil suit. What’s more, the couple will have to pay their opponents attorney’s fees.
On top of all of this, the bill authorizes anti-gay discrimination by anyone who works for the state of Kansas. Ambulances can refuse to come to the home of a gay couple, park managers can deny them entry, state hospitals can turn them away, and public welfare agencies can decline to work with them.

You don’t have to completely buy the Jim Crow analogy to understand that this legislation—a logical extension from the claims made for blanket exemptions for religious-based objections to laws in the Sebelius vs. Hobby Lobby case on which the Supreme Court will hear arguments next month—is designed to carve out a separatist zone of immunity for people who are willing to say their hostility to homosexuality or to same-sex marriage is religiously motivated. The fact that even public employees would share this immunity shows that it isn’t designed to protect a tiny group of wedding planners or cake-bakers from the horror of being expected to peddle their services to same-sex couples—the hypothetical on which much of the “religious liberty” argument is being pegged—but to sanction discrimination generally.

If I were a conservative evangelical or “traditionalist” Catholic who strongly objected to same-sex marriage, I believe I’d fear this sort of legislation as much as the changing legal regime for marriage that provoked it. Yes, there is a tradition of Christian separatism that calls for withdrawal from “this world” to constitute a “righteous remnant” devoted to a “godly life” that doesn’t compromise with anyone else’s way of living. But it’s largely a pacific tradition that leaves judgments to God and calls on believers to avoid conflicts and make sacrifices for the faith. It has little to do with the militant conservative Christian counter-revolution going on in places like Kansas, where people are being urged to actively discriminate (or to use another word, persecute) the “unclean” while considering themselves the victims of intolerance.

This sort of culture-war belligerency makes any reasonable compromises with conservative religious sensibilities difficult if not impossible. It conflates “religious liberty” with the right to evade all laws inconvenient to bigots as well as unbigoted believers. And it seeks to construct a “separate but superior” godly ghetto enjoying state support.

I’d also argue these demands for “religious liberty” represent a shameful inversion of the irenic spirit of Christianity, but that’s just me.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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