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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

You’d think history might serve as a guide for the politicians and preachers — good Christians all, of course — who have chosen to use the Bible to bolster their bigotry against people they’ve placed outside the magic circle. We’ve seen this before, and it didn’t turn out well for those who claimed a mantle of righteousness. Yet onward they march.

Mississippi recently passed a “religious freedom” law designed to provide legal cover for those who wish to discriminate against gays and lesbians. The law is quite specific, allowing government clerks to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and protecting businesses that refuse to serve them.

Does this ring any bells? Do any of these people remember Jim Crow, a system of legalized oppression that stunted Mississippi for generations and whose legacy the state is still struggling to overcome?

They can’t have forgotten — not all of them.

Gov. Phil Bryant, who signed the odious bill, is certainly old enough to remember. He’d remember, too, that, during his childhood, many of the leading church folk declared that God was on the side of discrimination.

And history should have taught the governor about Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who dared to marry in 1958. The Virginia judge who sentenced them to prison for their crime wrote: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. … The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

Indeed, this practice of using the Bible as a prop for prejudice has a long and ignominious tradition, spanning centuries and continents. In the United States, slave owners conveniently saw in the Bible a heaven-sent sanction for their brutal greed. Throughout the 19th century, preachers delivered sermons claiming that “the Old Testament did sanction slavery,” as the Rev. Richard Fuller put it in 1847. Others saw a validation of white supremacy in a Bible verse about the descendants of Ham.

Proponents of “religious freedom” statutes point to the First Amendment, which enshrines as a central value the protection of religious views, even those that are outside the mainstream. Congress reiterated its fidelity to that founding principle as recently as 1993, when a bipartisan majority passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It was designed for such cases as the Sikh firefighter who wants to keep his beard, or the Orthodox Jew who needs an exemption from a Sabbath work requirement.

But the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage set off a spate of proposals that serve no purpose except bigotry — laws that prop up prejudice with Scripture. The giveaway in several of those bills is this: They allow for-profit businesses to claim to have religious beliefs and to refuse service on that basis.

(The Supreme Court opened the door for that with its unfortunate 2014 ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which assigned religious beliefs to corporations. That involved a company’s “religious freedom” to refuse to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives.)

Churches, by the way, don’t need any extra legal protections. The First Amendment has always given religious institutions wide latitude to practice their beliefs as they see fit, even if that means making invidious distinctions. Catholic priests have long reserved the right to refuse to marry those who are divorced; many conservative churches refuse to ordain women. So clerics may decline to perform the marriage rite for same-sex couples without fear of legal sanctions.

Given that, there is no need for laws that legitimize discrimination, and some states, either through revision or veto, have stepped back from such mean-spirited laws. North Carolina, however, has forged ahead with its “bathroom bill,” passed to nullify a Charlotte law that would have allowed transgendered individuals to use public restrooms of their choosing. And other state legislators are still debating proposals meant to show their disapproval of same-sex marriage.

Onward they march — toward their heterosexual heaven.

Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.