Jim Crow of the 21st Century

2515673214_d8188c3c2f (1)We haven’t seen proposed laws this jaw-droppingly discriminatory since Jim Crow of the 19th and 20th century. Even more recently, these proposed laws reflect the men’s only business clubs, such as Kiwanis, Rotary and Lions, that have largely disappeared from sight in the 90s.

Arizona is the first state to pass a “religious rights” bill  in both its House and Senate, though the state’s governor, Jan Brewer, vetoed the bill Wednesday before it was made into law. The bill would have allowed business owners to refuse service to any person they felt infringed on their personal religious beliefs. Among others who might have beeen discriminated against were LGBT individuals or same-sex couples.

This proposed amendment followed court cases that sided in favor of LGBT couples and against discrimination. The New Mexico Supreme Court, in August 2013, decided that a wedding photographer had broken anti-discrimination law after refusing services to a same-sex couple based on religious reasons. The Washington State Attorney General recently filed a consumer-protection suit when a florist refused to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding.

Arizona received a lot of opposition to the proposed law, not only from voters and politicians but from large corporations such as Apple  and American Airlines. Three state senators who had voted in favor of the bill—Bob Worsley, Adam Driggs and Steve Pierce—openly regretted their decision to support it.

There is some history behind this type of legislation. In 1993, a federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed, similar to the content of Arizona’s bill, but it was deemed unconstitutional in 1997. Kansas was able to pass a similar bill in its House, but not in its Senate. Tennessee was considering a bill allowing those in the wedding business to refuse service to same-sex couples based on “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Senator Mike Bell, the bill’s sponsor, however, removed his support saying:

I would never introduce legislation that attempts to limit the civil rights of any Tennessean, whether straight or gay. The bill was designed to protect a pastor, rabbi or singer from being sued and forced to participate in a same-sex ceremony against their will.

South Dakota’s Senate Judiciary Committee rejected a bill that would protect and defend citizens’ and business’ speech on sexual orientation. Even Republican senator Mark Kirkeby called the bill mean, nasty, hateful and vindictive. Mississippi, Utah, Idaho, Oregon and Ohio have also attempted or are currently trying to pass similar bills. But in each case, they’re certain to come up against citizen outrage, the promise of economic boycotts and not-so-distant memories of segregated lunch counters, buses and drinking fountains.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Image Editor licensed under Creative Commons 2.0



Lindsey O’Brien is currently studying journalism at Ohio University and interning at Ms. Follow her on Twitter.


  1. I think this bill shows how so-called religious freedom is so often used as a cover to discriminate and keep various groups in an inferior position in society, most commonly LGBTQ people, as with this law, or women when it comes to accessing contraception.

  2. Philip Muphy says:

    Dear Ms O’Brien – I take strong exception to your characterization on the mentioned service clubs in your opening paragraph. I am not sure if you have ever even bothered to attend a Rotary meeting or even took the time to do any research on Rotary, but it certainly is not the organization that I belong to. I am well aware that many bloggers such as yourself just put words on the screen that reflect your opinions but, if indeed your goal is to be a journalist,please be a responsible and do your homework. There are many committed Rotarians around the globe, both women and men, doing great projects. I get the point of your article, but I fail to get the slam on service clubs. It did not seem to add any value except to put down a lot of good people

  3. Just a point of clarity–the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed with bipartisan support and signed by Clinton, was only ruled unconstitutional as applied to the States due to limits on Federal Government powers. The RFRA is still in affect and is currently the basis of the Supreme Court challenges to the birth control mandate in Obamacare.

  4. Huck Finn says:

    The veto was a result of the threat of economic sanctions, not some moral epiphany in the state’s capital. Had it not been for the threat of lost revenue, including the Super Bowl, governor Brewer would have signed the bill into law. As for the expressed regret of the bill’s former supporters, we can put that down also to regretting the adverse publicity that attended the bill’s passing, as opposed to any genuine remorse for attempting to pass fundamentally discriminatory legislation.

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