In 1942, with the United States newly entered into the Second World War, the Lonestar Restaurant Association in Texas printed flyers for its members to paste on their windows that read: "No Negroes, Mexicans or Dogs Allowed."That iconic and painful reminder of America's history of discrimination came to mind in recent days as I listened to Indiana Governor Mike Pence struggle through a mind-numbingly contorted defense of his state's recently enacted Religious Freedom Restoration Law. Let's be clear that what Gov. Pence singed into law has little to do with religious liberty and a lot to do with the desire to discriminate against entire sectors of our society but especially gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Americans. We've been here before.
In the '40s and '50s, as the civil rights movements in Black and Latino communities gathered steam and pushed against the barriers of public and private racism and discrimination, some state governments and businesses responded by claiming that desegregation was an attack on their freedom to choose with whom to share classrooms, bathrooms, restaurants, train stations and the like. In short, they equated their freedom to discriminate with other Americans' claims to equality. Looking back, we can take great comfort and pride that when faced with this false choice, Americans almost always chose equality.
Yet the battle for equality isn't over; it never is. This time, the targets of discrimination are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans. This time, the discrimination cloaks itself in the mantle of religious liberty and "freedom of conscience." This time, the forces of discrimination have cast themselves as a persecuted minority, fending off attacks against their most sacred religious values. Nonsense. No law in this country compels a religious person to act against their religious values and ideals. No law compels that churches or mosques celebrate marriages for gays and lesbians. No law compels a rabbi, pastor or imam to give a religious benediction to homosexuality.
What the law does compel, however, is that one not discriminate in business or in government against a person for their appearance, their nationality, their color, their creed, and, yes, their sexual orientation. That's not an attack against religious liberty; it's a defense of American values.
For many Latinos across the country, gay and straight, this Indiana law and its companion in Arkansas, are a painful reminder of our own struggle for equality in the United States. When we see what is happening in Indiana and Arkansas and other states across the country, we recognize the discrimination because we have been and are still its targets. We see it today with attempts to pass anti-immigrant laws in Arizona, Alabama, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. And because of these historic and ongoing struggles, we cannot be silent in the face of these deeply un-American acts. We will not be silent.
The defenders of discrimination and bigotry may control many statehouses and governor's mansions in this country, but they're on the wrong side of history. Americans of good conscience will always rise up in defense of equality. We know. We've been here before.