Discrimination and public life

John Muenzberg

Column by John Muenzberg, Lecturer of philosophy

When Mississippi passed House Bill 1523, they legalized discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

They also legalized discrimination against unwed mothers, sexually-active senior citizens and women who wear pants. Similar laws were proposed in North Carolina, in which it was passed, and Georgia, in which it was blocked.

The Mississippi law allows businesses and organizations to refuse service to people who violate their views of marriage and gender identity. Some rules are specific to religious organizations, but others are based only in “sincerely-held religious or moral convictions.” By claiming such a conviction, one can protect oneself from possible lawsuits.

On the surface, it appears that HB 1523 allows individuals to refuse service to people in LGBT weddings and other ceremonies, but the law is more broad than that. Since the basis is the assertion that “sexual relations are properly reserved for such a marriage,” any premarital sexual relations could be a basis for refusing service. Teenagers looking for information about sex or contraception can be refused service by a government agency because one employee disagrees with premarital sex.

In addition, it lets businesses set “sex-specific standards” concerning dress or grooming. In practice, this means that your boss can specify what you wear based on old-fashioned gender ideals.

This is one reason this law, and laws similar to it, should be rejected. They are written to satisfy the anti-LGBT attitudes of a minority of people, but their impact is to justify outdated attitudes toward all sexual relations.

The idea of protecting people’s religious beliefs has some appeal, as it is intuitively problematic to have a government agency force us to act in ways that we dislike. Appeals to religious liberty often cite the freedom of religion that we enjoy in the U.S.

The imposition of religious beliefs on others is not the same as religious practice. Religious practice generally refers to specific traditions related to religious expression, such as worship services, wearing of specific clothing or religious symbols or observing specific holy days.

Religious practice does not generally refer to moral choices. That the Bible prescribes punishments for adultery does not grant one the right to punish adulterers. That the Bible prescribes punishments for those who eat the wrong foods or wearing the wrong fabrics does not give one the right to interfere in other people’s lives. That someone believes that homosexuality is a sin does not give one the right to deny other people access to health care or a public life.

As I have written before, the courts have made broad exceptions for religious-organizations, such as a church or religious school, to follow religious beliefs. It is illegal for a private company to refuse to hire women, but a religiously operated organization is allowed to discriminate in certain cases.

But the courts often reject such accommodation if it impedes people’s ability to live a public life. Religious liberty was used to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The courts rejected this defense because the implementation of one’s private morality in the public sphere caused harm to specific individuals. Allowing a woman to wear modest clothing allows her to live according to her religious beliefs. Allowing her to deny services to a LGBT couple imposes those religious beliefs on other people. This refusal of services disrupts public life and denies individuals equal participation in society. This is why discrimination is considered wrong and why laws such as HB 1523 should be rejected.