The value of religious freedom is paramount in our country — that’s why it’s enshrined in our nation’s Constitution. Let there be no doubt: People of faith and their right to exercise their closely held religious beliefs are fully protected. Most unfortunately, a select group of insidious activists and elected officials is pretending those protections don’t exist and is threatening the civil rights of LGBT Americans.
Legislators in states such as Indiana, Arkansas, and Georgia are busy pushing bills that purport to further protect religious believers from the so-called scourge of government intrusion. But these bills aren’t about religious belief at all: They’re about discrimination, pure and simple.
Legislative proposals like the one coming to Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the bill Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed into law Thursday are driven not by belief but by fear of the unknown. As marriage equality edges closer and closer to becoming the law of the land, those who are dismayed by the broad sweep of progress are using so-called religious freedom bills as ballast. But doing so puts not only LGBT Americans and their families at risk — it puts all of us in an untenable position.
These religious refusal proposals tell folks they can pick and choose which laws they want to follow. That individuals can sue not only businesses but teachers, firefighters, and police officers if they believe their religious rights are violated. If a police officer sues his precinct because he is required to patrol a mosque, can laws like the one in Indiana protect him? If a father sues a teacher because she disciplined his child under a community-wide anti-bullying policy, can legislation like that before the governor of Arkansas put that teacher in jeopardy? These bills are intentionally vague, leaving it up to an overburdened court system to decide whether an individual’s religious beliefs are more important than another person’s basic civil rights.
We oppose these bills because they seek not to preserve or protect religious believers but to demean and exclude LGBT people, religious minorities, and others who may find themselves standing on the outside looking in.
I have seen discrimination. I have stood inside businesses that would not serve me because of my race, and I have been told that the rights of those business owners were more important than mine. I countered that logic then, as I do now. We have no crisis of religious discrimination; we have a crisis of fear. I stand against these bills and with those who are fighting to stop them. I refuse to allow discrimination to cloak itself in a shroud of faith. I refuse to give into fear.
Dr. Julian Bond is a civil rights leader and former member of the Georgia legislature. He is the founder and president emeritus of the Southern Poverty Law Center and served as chairman of the NAACP from 1998 to 2010.