Last week Indiana signed the now highly controversial "religious freedom" bill into law. Senate Bill 101, which takes effect July 1, prohibits state or local governments from substantially burdening a person's ability to exercise their religion. Arkansas is now considering a similar bill. But these two states are not alone. Forty percent of U.S. states now have religious freedom bills similar to Indiana. Although not written to specifically target LGBT persons, there is now well-grounded concern that such laws will lead to increases in discrimination based on sexual orientation. In addition to the obvious harm and distress this will cause, what message are we sending to our children about their rights and their right to discriminate against others?
Just suppose for a moment that it was ever appropriate for laws to be determined by religious doctrine. In a country made up of a melting pot of cultures that prides itself on democracy, then surely we have to include all religions? Judaism, Islam (Shi'ism, Sunnism), Buddhism, Hinduism, and all branches of Christianity (Catholicism, Protestantism), to name but a few, shouldn't they all be invited to the table? The recent growth in laws aimed at protecting religious freedoms -- many of which stem from the Supreme Court ruling that Hobby Lobby (a Christian owned company) did not have to provide health insurance coverage for contraception -- are supported largely by right-wing Christian groups. Why not examine all religious texts and seek input from all religions when deciding what constitutes religious freedom? We cannot have one voice creating a sense of panic and hate.
These laws are not founded on actual religious rules; rather interpretations of what religious texts mean. Or worse, views on what religious texts say from people who have never taken the time to study the texts. And where do we draw the line in the interpretation of what can be denied on the grounds of religious freedom? Religious freedom acts allow a doctor to refuse to treat the child of a same-sex couple; this happened recently in Michigan. Technically could I be refused service in a Jewish Deli for having a foreskin? (Now that would be an interesting sign in the window). I doubt this will happen, and nor do I think I will suddenly be allowed to stone phone psychics to death (per Leviticus 20:27). But the public discourse suggests religious freedom is being used as an excuse to deny rights to LGBT people.
At best, this represents moral conservatism. At worst, it is pure bigotry. There is nothing wrong with being morally conservative. Let me make one thing clear; my sexuality doesn't need your approval. It doesn't need anything from you. It is mine. It is ok if you don't approve; we all have things we don't approve of. I don't approve of those rings people put in the earlobes that result in stretched out skin and floppy lobes. They make me cringe. And that is ok. But the decision to disfigure your earlobe is your choice, and this is where we hit another important distinction. Being gay is not a choice, although being brave enough to be open about your sexuality in a hostile environment is. And when we start to legalize people's rights to deny services based on individual characteristics we quickly move into legally sanctioned bigotry.
Missing from this discourse is the messages we are sending to youth. As impressionable children, we internalize messages we receive about what is right, what is normal, what we are allowed to be -- each shaping our views about our sexual identity and whether we "belong." These messages set scripts for youth to follow, divide them into normal and abnormal, and arm bullies with justification to harm them. My own recent research, published in the American Journal of Men's Health, showed that gay men who reported that they heard statements such as "being gay is not normal" in their youth were more likely as adults to have unprotected sex and to have sex while intoxicated or high. Similar research shows that gays are significantly more likely to attempt suicide compared with heterosexual youth (21.5 percent vs 4.2 percent), and that among gay youth, the risk of attempting suicide is 20 percent greater in unsupportive environments compared with supportive environments. Doesn't exactly sound like religious tolerance does it?
We need interventions to stem this tide of bigotry dressed up as freedom. Recently the NCAA expressed concern over Indiana's signing of Senate Bill 101 as they get ready to host to final four of March madness. If the hyper-heterosexual world of college sport can step up and be concerned, then so can others. Indianapolis' Republican mayor, Greg Ballard, has broken with Pence on the bill, saying the act put his city's economy at risk. We risk damaging our democratic reputation, our economy and our human rights record. We need education that teaches youth to respect diverse identities and not laws that tell them it is ok to discriminate. These laws divide. They tell youth that hate is ok. They send a message that one person's rights are more important than another's. And when it comes to what these laws are doing to youth, not one says it better than Rodgers and Hammerstein: You've got to be taught to hate and fear, You've got to be taught from year to year, it's got to be drummed in your dear little ear, You've got to be carefully taught (South Pacific, "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught, Rodgers and Hammerstein).
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not represent those of the University of Michigan.
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