It wasn’t so long ago when one of the most powerful justifications wielded in support of segregation was religious belief.
Throughout the American South, state-sanctioned Jim Crow laws legally separated blacks from whites. Schools were segregated. Restaurants were segregated. Blacks and whites couldn’t legally marry. Even water fountains were designated by race.
Defenders of these racist policies employed a variety of arguments to support the institution of discrimination, including — as one lower court justice actually argued in a landmark civil rights case — that God “separated the races” because “he did not intend for the races to mix.”
Today, so-called religious freedom bills are cropping up around the nation that would turn back the clock on American progress against legal discrimination.
Cloaked under the mantle of religious liberty, right-wing lawmakers are claiming the “religious freedom” to deny other citizens whose lifestyles they disagree with — including gay and transgender Americans — employment, professional or private services, and the right to marry, among other things.
The free exercise of religion sits at the heart of our nation’s founding. But we live in a democracy, not a theocracy. We can’t let religious liberty be abused as a tool of oppression against any class of people.
Following huge public outcry and the threat of millions in lost business in the state, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal vetoed a religious freedom bill that was meant to let faith-based groups and individuals refuse services or employment to people on religious grounds.
Elsewhere, these laws are on the march.
In Missouri, lawmakers are looking at legislation that would amend the state constitution to protect individuals and businesses that refuse to provide goods or services for same-sex marriage ceremonies or celebrations of same-sex couples.
As Missouri lawmakers consider the law for a future vote, the NCAA is considering bids from other states for future events — potentially costing Kansas City, Missouri millions in revenue from lost sporting events.
Over 20 states have passed some form of religious freedom bill or put policies in place that violate our country’s core principles of inclusion. Most recently, North Carolina passed a sweeping bill violating these principles, and Mississippi followed suit.
Our country was founded on the idea that people shouldn’t be persecuted because of their religious beliefs. But like with any other right, there are reasonable limits to its free exercise. In a democracy as diverse as ours, tensions between different communities are inevitable.
As our nation’s first president articulated, the government must “give bigotry no sanction.” In other words, Americans don’t have the right to deny others their rights.
Religious liberty, as valuable and necessary as it is, doesn’t give people the freedom to break laws. And the government shouldn’t twist it to oppress a class of people in a nation whose goal, since its founding, has been to create a more perfect union.
Marc Morial is the CEO of the National Urban League.