Religious Liberty Is a Just Cause — Except When It's Used to Justify Intolerance

Segregationists had 'public safety' as an excuse. Is religious liberty the new straw man?

A quarter-century ago, I was a legislative reporter in Arkansas assigned to a ceremony honoring Daisy Bates, the civil rights giant who led the Little Rock school integration effort in 1957. As Gov. Bill Clinton spoke and Bates beamed, a hunched old man limped into the room and leaned against a back wall.

"Gov. Faubus?" I asked.

"That would be me," replied Orval Eugene Faubus, the former six-term Democratic governor who defied the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling ending separate but equal schools, forcing President Dwight D. Eisenhower to enforce Brown vs. the Board of Education with federal troops. Nine black students "“ Bates's "Little Rock Nine" "“ were escorted into Central High.

"I'm proud of how I protected 'em," Faubus said, nodding his head toward Bates. "It had nothing to do with race, ya know. It had everything to do with safety."

That brush with history came roaring back to me this week as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, considered a bill that would have given business owners the right to refuse service to gay men, lesbians and other people on religious grounds.

She vetoed the measure late Wednesday, saying it didn't address a pressing need ("I have not heard of one example in Arizona where business owners' religious liberty has been violated") and distracted from her agenda (economic growth and the state's troubled child protection system).

Conservatives argue that it's a stretch to compare Jim Crow laws to limits on gay rights. "Sexual orientation is not race — and permitting what would most definitely be a very small number of observant Christians to exercise their right of conscience is vastly different from pervasive and state-sponsored racism," wrote Matt Lewis for The Daily Caller. He makes a fair point, but Lewis shouldn't dismiss the analogue as a self-serving search for "the moral high ground." There's more to it.

For me, it starts with the time I spent in Arkansas with Faubus, Bates and Clinton, several members of the Little Rock Nine and countless others touched by the 1957 crisis. Faubus began his career as a progressive Democrat who desegregated state buses and public transportation and considered the possibility of introducing multi-race schools after his 1954 election. A challenge from his right prompted Faubus to adopt a segregationist stance, which he disingenuously insisted was not a matter of race. With public opinion so strongly against the Supreme Court ruling in 1957, Faubus argued that integrating would undermine the safety of all students.

Safety was his straw man. Religious liberty, like public safety, is a just cause, except when it's used to justify intolerance.

"This bill "¦ bars government discrimination against religious exercise," Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Family Research Council, said of the Arizona measure, "so by vetoing this bill, Gov. Brewer is saying she supports government discrimination against people's religious freedom."

No, that's not what she's saying. Brewer no more supports religious discrimination than Eisenhower encouraged violence in public schools. Perkins knows better, and his inflammatory language hurts his cause.

To be clear, I worry about infringements on personal liberties under Presidents Obama and Bush, and I consider religious freedom a cornerstone of American democracy. I empathize with the views of Perkins and others, but I am suspicious when people use religion to marginalize others. Like Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast, I hear echoes of the segregated South.

"n 1901, Georgia Gov. Allen Candler defended unequal public schooling for African Americans on the grounds that "God made them negroes and we cannot by education make them white folks." After the Supreme Court ordered public schools integrated in Brown v. Board of Education, many segregationists cited their own faith as justification for official racism. Ross Barnett won Mississippi's governorship in a landslide in 1960 after claiming that "the good Lord was the original segregationist." Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia relied on passages from Genesis, Leviticus and Matthew when he spoke out against the civil rights law banning employment discrimination and whites-only lunch counters on the Senate floor."

The Bible is both a holy book and a book of loopholes, open to broad interpretation and, at one time, the source of racist inspiration.  My takeaway: In this great and diverse country, we are capable of protecting people's right to express their faith and worship freely without tramping others' rights to live freely.

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