Blast From the Past: States Using 'Religious Freedom' to Justify Segregation

03/26/2015 10:01 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Indiana Governor Mike Pence has pledged to sign a bill today that would allow individuals and businesses to discriminate against anyone they like, simply by claiming religious belief.

The bill will mostly likely target gays and lesbians. But it's identical to policies that targeted people on the basis of race a hundred years ago.

It's part of a nationwide backlash against LGBT equality, masked in an innocent-sounding campaign to protect "religious freedom." But as pleasant as "religious freedom" sounds, homophobic lawmakers are using it as code for anti-gay discrimination.

I explain exactly how the "religious freedom" bait-and-switch works in this video:

For example, last week, Senator James Lankford (Oklahoma) and Representative Randy Forbes (Virginia) jumped on the fact that Chipotle suspended a pork supplier who had failed to provide proper animal care. Then they twisted that news through a tangle of logic until it was sly justification for businesses to refuse service to LGBTs.

What do happy pigs have to do with discrimination? Not much. But the two Republicans would like very much to conjure a connection.

When Chipotle suspended a sub-par supplier, they "made a decision to commit to self-imposed standards," Lankford and Forbes wrote in an op-ed. "It is crucial that the same freedom of conscience enjoyed by the leadership of Chipotle remain equally available to business owners of faith."

In essence, their op-ed asks: if we can celebrate a chain of Mexican grills for taking a moral stand, shouldn't we celebrate businesses that take a religious stand?

Fortunately, this question has an easy answer: no, absolutely not.

First of all, while terms like "religious freedom" and "conscience" sound nice, what they're really talking about is discrimination. The op-ed takes pains to never once mention gays and lesbians, but what kind of "religious freedom" could they possibly mean? They never give an example, but their meaning isn't hard to deduce.

Just like Indiana, Lankford and Forbes' home states (and two dozen more) just introduced bills that would allow businesses to refuse services to LGBTs by claiming "religious freedom." Every homophobic politician in the country is jumping onto the "religious freedom" bandwagon with pockets full of "turn away the gays" bills that would restrict LGBT access to services, housing, jobs, and safety.

Sound familiar? You don't have to look far in American history to find cases of discrimination being defended as "religious freedom." Supporters of slavery, segregation, and interracial marriage bans all invoked Biblical defenses.

In 1946, Mississippi Governor Theodore Bilbo wrote, "[p]urity of race is a gift of God ... And God, in his infinite wisdom, has so ordained it that when man destroys his racial purity, it can never be redeemed."

One of Bilbo's gubernatorial successors added that "the good Lord was the original segregationist."

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court went even further: "[t]he natural law which forbids [racial intermarriage] and that social amalgamation which leads to a corruption of races, is as clearly divine as that which imparted to [the races] different natures."

Having a basis in a religious belief doesn't automatically make a policy good. As a country, we've decided that whether or not a policy is religious, when it infringes on someone else's freedom or causes them harm, it can't be allowed. That's why we have laws like The Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, and gender.

No matter how devoutly a business owner believes in segregation, he can't refuse service to a customer or fire an employee on the basis of having an interracial marriage.

Of course, if you're determined to discriminate, you still have one option: private clubs and religious organizations aren't required to treat all people equally. You can opt-out of nondiscrimination by removing yourself from the obligations of the public sphere.

But that also means opting-out of some of the benefits of the public sphere.

Bob Jones University learned that the hard way in the 1980s. The school prohibited interracial dating on religious grounds, which led the IRS to revoke its tax-exempt status. The University sued, explaining that they "engage in racial discrimination on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs."

But the Supreme Court wasn't impressed. They wrote that "[o]n occasion this Court has found certain governmental interests so compelling as to allow even regulations prohibiting religiously based conduct."

In other words, you can discriminate in private, or you can enjoy being tax-exempt in public, but you can't do both.

Dr. Brian Grim -- whom Lankford and Forbes cited approvingly in their article -- has also written that "like any liberty, religious freedoms force those in power to protect the rights of minorities, even when the majority does not agree. Enforcing this liberty comes with a price, but the price of denying the freedom is far higher."

Religious freedom applies to everyone so that the minority isn't trampled by the majority. If liberty only applies to the powerful, it isn't much liberty at all.

So what does Indiana's "Turn-Away-The-Gays" bill have to do with Chipotle? Nothing.

"It's a pretty ridiculous comparison," company spokesman Chris Arnold said. "Our decision not to serve pork that doesn't meet our standards isn't discriminating against any customers or group of customers."

Routine business choices aren't equivalent to religious freedom, particularly when the term "religious freedom" is being used as a mask for discrimination. A restaurant's choice of pork supplier doesn't really hurt anyone. But religiously-motivated discrimination, whether it's against interracial couples or LGBT couples, does.

And thanks to Governor Mike Pence, Indiana residents will now have an opportunity to experience that harm first-hand.

Homophobic politicians like Pence, Lankford, and Forbes are using warm feelings toward religion to mask darker motivations like discrimination and anti-gay animus. They're hoping readers will just go along for the ride.

But the connection simply isn't there.

And true religious freedom doesn't mean the freedom push people around. It means the freedom from harm, including for marginalized groups like LGBTs.