BIGOTRY BY ANY OTHER NAME

By Paul M. Lewis

Now that marriage equality is the law of the land (as much as certain states are still attempting to throw up roadblocks against its implementation), it’s curious to see how some religious people are reacting. One tack that seems particularly egregious is the claim that anyone who is adamantly pro-traditional marriage (so called) is now the supposed aggrieved party. “I have every right to believe what I believe and to say what I say about the errant and sinful nature of gay marriage,” they say.

Is that so? Of course it is, at least so far as it goes. It is difficult to imagine anyone, gay or non-gay alike, who would argue against a person’s right to believe, or to say, whatever he or she likes (given the usual exclusions, of course, such as defamation, or the iconic yelling fire in a crowded theater, when there is no fire). This is the very essence of the First Amendment, that we are free to express whatever views we care to about almost any subject. In a sense, the more controversial the topic and the views expressed, the more the right to speak or write about it ought to be defended. It is, after all, especially in its most egregious form (e.g. hate speech) that we have no choice but to protect and secure the right to express it, because one person’s extreme is another person’s truth. What often gets overlooked in declamations about the First Amendment, though, is the fact that those who oppose extreme views on controversial subjects themselves have the right to express their own opinions about the opposing point of view, and about those who hold it.

The argument being made by the ultra-orthodox is actually somewhat convoluted, but boiled down to its essence, it amounts to something like this: They, themselves, are experiencing unfair defamation of character when those whom they criticize as sinners call them bigots. “Is it really bigotry,” they say, “when what we are simply doing is pointing out what we sincerely believe to be immoral or unbiblical (or un-you-name-the-holy-book) behavior?” “No,” they reply to their own question, “it is not bigotry; it is simply our God-given right, indeed, God’s mandate, to call a sin a sin.”

But is it truly unfair to call them bigots? In attempting to untie this knot, it may be useful to clarify exactly what is meant by the word bigotry. It is a term much in use these days, one frequently tossed about and applied in many varied circumstances. As such, it deserves closer scrutiny. In delving deeply into the meaning of a word, it’s useful to begin with the etymology of the term, its provenance, if you will. In this case, the etymology remains admittedly a bit unclear. But one commonly held suggestion is that it may be a corruption of the Germanic oath “bi Gott,” a bigot being someone who swears “by God” that he/she is right and that this purported truthfulness is sanctioned by the deity. In modern usage, a bigot has come to mean a sanctimonious person, someone making a special show of holiness or religiosity, in particular vis-à-vis another person’s actions or beliefs, and who as a result takes it upon him or herself to condemn these actions or beliefs.

Those who follow the orthodox interpretation of virtually any organized religion condemn gay people based on their holy book, or at very least on their bishops, priests, rabbis, pastors, mullahs etc., defining marriage as solely between a man and a woman. Any variation therefrom is held to be against the laws of God, as He has made his dictates known. It would seem hard to deny that this fits squarely in with the accepted definition of bigotry, as the condemnation of another person’s actions or beliefs out of religious conviction. But then there is the follow-up question: Does that mean that LGBT people, and their supporters, are themselves also bigots, when they call the ultra-religiously inclined bigots? Here, the word seems not to fit, inasmuch as most LGBT people are surely not acting out of any special show of holiness or religion.

It’s clear that those who believe God made the world one way—and one way only—and that in this scheme of things two women, or two men, who love each other are not allowed to marry one another, open themselves to charges of intolerance and bias. Again, it bears repeating that such people have every right to hold to these extreme views and to express them in whatever forum or circumstance they wish, but in doing so, they do not have the right to claim exemption from charges of discriminatory behavior, or to hold that they are being treated unfairly when someone calls them a bigot. And whining about the supposed unfairness of another’s appellation doesn’t get you very far. God knows, the religious right has said some truly terrible things about LGBT people over the years, things that amount to hate speech. And while we may have called them bigots in return, at least we can say that the word, in accordance with its literal definition, actually applies.

There’s no doubt that words can be injurious. Being called fagot and queer, to name a few of the less horrible terms, does not feel good. And neither do actions—prohibitions—like not being able to marry the person you love, or the inability to visit a loved one in a hospital, or the denial of citizenship to a loved one from another country—all of which have, thankfully, now been corrected. But other bans continue to remain in place, such as the so-called right of an employer in many states to fire a person, simply because that individual is lesbian or gay.

Words may have specific and precise meanings, but bigotry, by any other name, still remains bigotry. Certain orthodox religious people may not like it. They are not used to “being called names,” as we used to say when we were children. In the end, though, if the word fits, it must be applied, and there is no earthly (or heavenly) reason that I can see not to use it.

Does it hurt a sincere Christian believer when people call him or her a bigot because that person says LGBT people have no right to marry? I suppose it may well. But my advice to them is to buck up and learn to take it. Or better still, maybe they will even be inspired to think: Is it true? Am I actually a bigot!

PREJUDICE AND THE EROSION OF FREEDOM

By Paul M. Lewis

As we enter into another springtime, we are reminded of the reawakening and renewal of life. Easter is just days away, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ, and all of us remember that creation regenerates itself after a period of dormancy.

At such a time and in such an atmosphere, why then write an essay entitled, “Prejudice and the Erosion of Freedom?” Because, seemingly in opposition to the promise of warmer weather to come and the blossoming of crocuses and daffodils, there has been so much in the news of late about the diminution of liberty and self-determination. Or, perhaps more to the point, about the unending tug of war between points of view related to civil—and religious—rights, and how things ought to play out when the rights of one run headlong into those of others.

It was only three or four years ago, for example, that we were euphorically talking about “The Arab Spring,” a time when people rejoiced at the resurgence of democracy in Islamic countries, from the Maghreb region of North Africa to the Middle East. Today, with Egypt in the clutches of dictatorship once again, Syria in a protracted civil war, ISIS on the rise, and the ascendance of politico-religious extremists in Algeria, Tunisia, and of course Libya, we are all very much less sanguine about those prospects.

Recently, I was also reading in the Atlantic magazine an article entitled “Is It Time For The Jews To Leave Europe?” by Jeffrey Goldberg, which outlines in depressing detail terrible acts of anti-Semitism in France, Denmark, England, and of all places, Sweden, a real surprise to me, I have to admit. People are beginning to forget the horrors of the Holocaust, resulting in acts of prejudice and hatred both small and large directed toward those who can easily be identified as Jewish. In France, crudely lettered signs of “Nique les Juifs,” Fuck the Jews,” and “Juif, la France n’est pas pour toi” – “Jew, France is not for you,” have begun appearing with alarming frequency in the gritty Parisian suburbs of Montreil and Créteil. And in the Swedish city of Malmö, Jews have been beaten for the simple act of daring to wear a Star of David, or a kippah (i.e., a yarmulke). In years past, the Jews of Algeria often spoke of having to choose between le cercueil ou la valise, the coffin or the suitcase, in other words, death or departure. Nowadays, more and more European Jews are feeling the same pressure.

Here in the United States, gay people have seesawed up and down between the elation of victory and the sting of defeat. On the plus side, same-sex marriage is now legal in thirty-six states and the District of Columbia. But on the other side, the Christian Right has fought back hard. Witness the passage last week of the so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” by the Indiana legislature, signed by Governor Mike Pence. And even though there are current, frantic efforts at “damage control,” as it’s written, this new law gives carte blanche to anyone who wants to refuse services to LGBT people. Don’t care to bake a cake for a gay wedding because this flies in the face of your “sincerely held religious beliefs?” No problem! What about a dry cleaner who wonders about who might be wearing those two tuxedos somebody just brought in? It seems as though she could say, “Sorry, take these to the guy down the street. I don’t think he’s a Christian,” and the customer would have no legal recourse but to do so. And God forbid (literally,) if two women ask for a room with only one bed in an Indiana motel. If the answer is, “No, we don’t do business with people like you,” the only recourse would be for the women to hope that the next motel down the road is run by someone less prejudiced. Or, of course, one of the women could always go register, while the other hides in the car. Heading back into the closet, we might well be told, is always another option.

Why do religions have to condemn anyone who doesn’t espouse their beliefs? The question is not an easy one to answer. And the First Amendment to the Constitution doesn’t always clear things up all that well. Let me remind you of its exact wording:“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Where exactly is that sweet spot, endlessly and precariously balanced between the rights of people to exercise their sincerely held religious beliefs, and that of all of us to speak and assemble as we wish, or not to ‘deny any person within its (i.e. the States) jurisdiction the equal protection of the law,” to quote another of the Amendments, the fourteenth? Most of us can, and do, agree that beating a person up, to say nothing of killing them, because of their religion, or their sexual orientation, is beyond any such legal protection. But what of the deranged point of view that feels free to write “Fuck the Jews,” or to say people are not obliged to serve gays, because they are an abomination in the sight of God, and serving them would somehow taint those who do so?

This may merely be the price we pay for living in democratic and pluralistic societies. How often do we hear of such problems in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where only the Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam can be practiced, one of the religion’s most conservative and puritanical branches, and where religious police actually patrol the streets to enforce the strictness of its code? Indeed, one of the problems in Europe these days, and which no one can deny contributes to the increase in anti-Semitism, is the mounting influence of Islam, specifically radical Islam. France alone, a country of 66 million people, has almost 5 million Muslims, many of whom are themselves poor, dispossessed, marginalized, and openly discriminated against by the likes of Marie Le Pen’s National Front Party, which polls say may well win in the elections coming up in 2017. Mme Le Pen says she and her followers believe passionately in laïcisme, the time-honored French doctrine that religion should not impose itself in public affairs and government institutions. And yet, the National Front is known to be virulently anti-Muslim, possibly anti-Semitic (although more recently they deny this), and they were at the forefront of the massive demonstrations against gay marriage seen in France in 2014.

Yes, spring comes round each year, with its promises of renewal, resurgence, and regeneration. And that is a good thing. In my mind, in fact, this is the real message of Easter, the promise of resurrecting new life from tattered and desiccated forms, or even of the lifting of one’s awareness from old, worn out ways of understanding our being, to a higher level of consciousness. But ramshackle and decaying ways of seeing the world are hard to rid ourselves of. Just ask the Jews of Monteuil, or the Muslims of Créteil (yes, not coincidentally, that’s where many of them live), or the gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people of Indiana.

Can we learn to live together in peace and harmony, tolerating—if not honoring—each other’s differences, or are we doomed to fight it out to the bitter end? Is it possible to strike the right balance between not establishing a religion, and permitting the free exercise thereof? And what of equal protection for all under the law? Personally, I like the image of new life emerging from the mud and the muck. So, let’s hope that this spring, this Easter, this Passover will be a new day for all discriminated-against people, and will bring with it a renewed resolution to allow everyone to live as they see fit, as long as there’s no harm to anyone else in so doing. If not, I’m sorry to say, I fear we’re facing yet another long, hot summer, burning with prejudice, and with the slow, but steady, erosion of our cherished personal freedoms.

WHO HAS THE RIGHT TO WORK?

By Paul

Who gives people the right to work? Is it the employer him or herself, or is it rather the government – the collectivity of the common wisdom (we hope) of the people of the country – which oversees, manages, and administrates the laws of the nation under which the business is set up? I am not speaking here of whatever educational or employment history an individual may have to have that makes that person suitable, or not, to work in a given position. That decision clearly must rest with the employer alone to make. What I am talking about is the fundamental and inherent human right to work, irrespective of race, or gender, or physical or mental impairment, or religious affiliation, or sexual orientation.

This inherent right seems to be under attack these days, based largely on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Much of the problem began with and harkens back to the disastrous 2010 Supreme Court case, Citizens United, which prohibited the government from making restrictions on corporations when it came to political donations. Corporations were seen to be “persons” in this regard, and therefore they were said to have the same rights as individuals regarding “political speech.”

This principle was invoked in the recent Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby case, in which the court decided in a 5 to 4 decision that closely held corporations (i.e., “people”) are not required to follow the law and provide their female employees with no-cost access to modern forms of contraception. Instead, the 5 conservative judges said that it violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which prevented laws “substantially burdening an individual’s free exercise of religion.”

The logic is that it is substantially burdensome to a company’s right to the free exercise of religion to be required to give women no-cost contraception as part of the organization’s normal insurance package. And, if that is the case, can we now be far from the same principle being applied to the decision not to hire, or to fire, an individual, if this “religious corporate person” finds that individual’s way of living objectionable on religious grounds. This at least is the fear that many LGBT groups have expressed in regard to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that has been languishing in Congress for some time now.

Just recently, in light of all of the above, such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Transgender Law Center have all said it is time to jettison support for ENDA because of the inherent major loopholes in it for religious organizations.   The one dissenting voice, the Human Rights Campaign, has for the moment stuck with supporting ENDA, (as much as it has no current chance of even being brought to the floor in the Republican controlled House).

What, in fact, is meant by a religiously affiliated organization? We are not talking here only about churches themselves. Instead, what comes under this wide rubric encompasses hospitals, universities, nursing homes etc. But if private companies, “persons” under the law, such as Hobby Lobby, have the right to discriminate based on religious grounds against women and their right to no-cost modern contraceptives, will it be long before the courts say that such companies equally do not have to hire “out gay people,” or transgender persons, because this violates their sincerely held religious beliefs?

The question has been raised again of late in part because the White House has sought a way around the roadblock faced by ENDA in the House of Representatives. Pres. Obama has issued an Executive Order prohibiting companies that do business with the Federal Government from discriminating against people due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. However, according to an editorial piece in the July 9th, 2014 issue of the Los Angeles Times, religious organizations are already up in arms and lobbying the Administration for the right of religious organizations not to be held to this standard.

Rev. Rick Warren, for example, whom the President invited to give the invocation at his first inauguration, was the leader in sending a letter to Pres. Obama with a warning that “an order that didn’t contain a religious exemption would threaten ‘the common good, national unity and religious freedom.’ ” How exactly not allowing organizations to discriminate against particular citizens of a country threatens the common good of that country remains something of a mystery.

Let us imagine a case in point. Suppose a small construction firm contracts with the National Park Service to put up a new entry kiosk at Yellowstone National Park (the first and the oldest national park in the country). And suppose a woman applies for a carpentry job with this firm to work on the project. She is well qualified, has several years of experience, outstanding work habits, excellent references, and has just moved to Wyoming with her wife, whom she recently married in California. But the town where they have settled is a small one, and it’s not long before the wife of the owner of the construction firm hears from the man who happens to live next door to the two women that he “suspects” they are lesbians. The head of the construction company and his wife are devout evangelical Christians, or let us say devout Muslims (if that makes any difference to anyone), and he is extremely uncomfortable with having hired a “known lesbian,” even if he thinks she is performing excellently on the job. If Rick Warren gets his way, the head of this company could summarily fire this otherwise excellent worker, due solely to the fact that she is married to a woman, and because this “offends” the sincerely held religious beliefs of the head of that firm.

Although this is an entirely made-up story, many such real examples take place every day in states where there is no protection for LGBT people against employment discrimination. And even in states where there is such protection, how many teachers have we heard of recently who have been fired from long-held posts in Catholic schools, who have been doing outstanding work and who were loved by their students, solely because it became known that they had recently married their same-sex spouse?

The LA Times editorial goes on to point out that Rick Warren and others have requested that the language of the Executive Order be modeled on language which provides for such religious exceptions in ENDA (thus the objection to ENDA of many LGBT groups). Perhaps an argument can be made, indeed has been made, that a carpenter is not a teacher, who is by definition a role model to children, and so church-affiliated schools have the right to fire teachers who enter into same-sex marriages, if this is against the tenets of their religion. But what of a young man hired by Hobby Lobby, whose supervisor hears that he is gay? Should Hobby Lobby, which under the law is now considered a “person” with sincerely held religious convictions, be able to fire this young man, solely because his private “life style” (so called) offends their belief system?

These are complex questions, pitting the constitutional rights of both sides against each other. Where you come down on the answers depends not only on how you feel about the rights of organized religion, but perhaps also on your own inherent sense of fairness and justice. And let us not forget that in the case of the President’s Executive Order we are talking about spending money that comes from our collective taxes, that is, the taxes of ALL of the people, not just of those who think like Rick Warren.

Do all citizens of the country, LGBT individuals included, deserve the same rights? That, in the end, is perhaps the most fundamental question, and the one that the Rick Warrens of the world ignore to their own ultimate peril.