Jim Crow of the 21st Century: Religious Rights Bills

We haven’t seen proposed laws this jaw-droppingly discriminatory since Jim Crow of the 19th and 20th century. Even more recently, these proposed “religious rights” 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.

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