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An Un-American Wolf in Religious Liberty's Clothing

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After a chorus of condemnation from business groups and the state's conservative U.S. senators, Governor Brewer wisely vetoed Arizona House SB 1062 late last week.

Those who welcome this news should not regard this issue as won and done. Set your watch and wait, since it won't be long until another state legislature votes to allow private beliefs to be wielded as very public cudgels.

While we wait I want to illuminate three basic flaws in the proponents' logic that have not been discussed thoroughly.

One is the intentional blurring between private and public, the second is the very human inconsistencies in the application of biblical edicts and the third is the inherent un-Americanism of the entire exercise.

On the blurring of public and private: Often when religious views are challenged or criticized they contend their beliefs are private. Fair enough. But religious beliefs shed the hermetic seal of privacy when they lead people to act in ways that manifestly impact others in the broad public square; be that the workplace, a restaurant, a bank or hotel. If someone defaced a church or threatened its facility I would be the first to stand with the congregants in their defense (one of the pungent ironies of this dynamic is that the real violence done to the faithful is almost always done by other believers) but once you are outside of your house or place of worship, your actions are no longer a private affair.

For example, Mormons are perfectly fine by me in believing what they do as long as they keep it to themselves. When they perform posthumous baptisms on Pope John Paul, Anne Frank and President Obama's mother, they cross the boundary between their lives and someone else's. It is tough to take refuge in privacy when you are cutting across the lawn of someone else's self-determined spiritual status. Same applies to a waiter if he refuses service to a gay couple or a real estate agent if he won't sell to an interracial couple. Once that private belief affects members of the public, it has entered the public square and is logically susceptible to restraints and checks, just like all public behavior.

Another layer of public and private; Evangelicals can believe what they wish to from Leviticus, but they can't travel through public society in some portable protective membrane that is limited only to the export of standards for behavior. If the zealous can reach into other lives and judge, leave their yard and condemn, then they can't on principle refuse the reach of the Enlightenment and the broader Civil Rights struggle into their lives, since they have ratified that very process through their own actions. I hold the Enlightenment and success of the Civil Rights movement as dear as they do their Exodus and Leviticus. But my cherished beliefs are the products of the democratic experiment of the last four centuries, rather than Bronze Age texts stitched together when our species was in its fearful, ignorant infancy.

The second problem evangelicals have is consistency since the biblical absolutist's case is weakened when they exercise their own judgment about what passages must be followed and which can be ignored. Leviticus 18:22 appears to condemn homosexuality, but why are they not also persecuting people for eating fruit from a tree within four years of planting it (L 19:23) stoning those who shave their beards or cut their hair (L19:27); or punishing those who wear blended fabrics or own cross-bred animals (L 19:19.)

When proponents drive home from church and pass a store that is open on Sunday, perhaps selling garden supplies or Sunday newspapers, should they not kill the owner in accordance with Exodus 35;2 "Whoever does work on it [the Sabbath] shall be put to death."

If the Bible is God's word then the Arizona proponents of this legislation will have to answer for treating it like a buffet.

And what happens when a Catholic banker refuses a loan to a divorced Evangelical mother, or when Muslims refuse hotel accommodations to someone who ate pork? The ridiculousness is endless.

Third, the real core of the issue: A lot of people do not like the fact that America moves forward and that 1950s social rigidity is no longer the framework for, not only who wins and loses, but who even gets to play. The broader Equal Rights Movement for gays, women and blacks was, when you reduce them to their cultural and sociological essence, sawing away at the manacles imposed by religion. Marginalization of gays? Biblical. Enslavement of blacks? Biblical. Persecution of Jews? Biblical. And subjugation of women is one trait all three major monotheisms share.

As generations perfected the American Experiment we dug deeper and deeper into its blind spots and original flaws, and every time we found a class or category of people who required liberation in order for us to be more consistent with our charter the transformation was almost always at religion's expense.

And what's funny, in a macabre way, is the effort to re-impose religion's will is dressed up as the next chapter in the same civil rights struggle that cleansed the public square of the zealot's self-proclaimed authority to begin with. It's a deft sleight of hand but we can't let it work, lest we embrace the need to repeat a whole century of social progress.

Consider this a wake-up call. Not all our social battles are grainy clips from marches and sit-ins decades ago. If every generation is to have a struggle, then let the defense of the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's' Rights Movement, the Gay Rights Movement and the Enlightenment itself be ours.