The Universal Notebook: When religious freedom is just bigotry

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Uganda and Arizona have a lot in common. They are both landlocked geopolitical entities that begin and end with vowels and that are run by homophobic bigots.

In the name of protecting family values, the Ugandan parliament recently passed an anti-gay law that imposes life in prison for some offenses. In the name of religious freedom, the Arizona Legislature recently passed a law that would allow businesses to discriminate against anyone at all as long as “the person’s action or refusal to act is motivated by a religious belief.”

You expect backward thinking like that from a place that was run by a cannibal dictator not all that long ago, but Arizona is almost a civilized state. I say “almost,” because, as you may remember, 76 percent of Arizona voters voted against the observation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1990, a dumb move that cost the state $500 million when the NFL moved the Super Bowl to California. Arizona is also the benighted state that passed a “Papers Please” profiling law allowing law enforcement officers to demand identification from anyone who doesn’t look like a legal citizen to them.

Gov. Jan Brewer, under pressure not only from human rights groups, but from business leaders, reluctantly vetoed the “religious freedom” law. If she hadn’t, Arizona could have kissed good-bye another Super Bowl, as well hundreds of millions of tourism dollars from all the good people who would not set foot in a place that legalizes discrimination.

Arizona’s “religious freedom” bill was largely aimed at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. Since the legalization of same-sex marriage in many states, there have been a few cases of discrimination nationwide against photographers, bakers and florists who don’t want to serve gay weddings. That has led to “family values” groups peddling “religious freedom” bills all over the country in an attempt to give bigots legal cover for their unconstitutional, unkind and un-American prejudices.

Another misuse of “religious freedom,” which the Supreme Court is about to take up, is the baseless argument some church-affiliated employers try to make that it’s against their religion to provide insurance coverage for contraception. Employers do not get to decide how employees use the wages and benefits they earn. It’s not the church’s money being used to purchase birth control, it’s the employee’s. Let’s hope the highly suspect Supremes get it right.

While Arizona would have been the first state to extend “religious freedom” to associations, partnerships, corporations, churches, religious assemblies, institutions and other business entities, 18 states have passed some form of religious freedom acts. Fortunately, bogus “religious freedom” bills have recently been defeated in more enlightened states such as Colorado and Maine.

An Act to Protect Religious Freedom was defeated last month 89-52 in the Maine House and 19-16 in the state Senate. While it is heartening that right and reason prevailed in the end, it is deeply disturbing that the vote was entirely along party lines, which means that not one Republican was able to see the bill for what it really was: a license for bigots to discriminate.

Legitimate religious freedom is already protected by the U.S. Constitution and the Maine Human Rights Act. To allow prejudiced people to get away with discriminating against anyone they happen to disapprove of by claiming “it’s against my religion” not only makes a mockery of religion, it undercuts the true fairness and freedom that is woven into the social fabric of America.

If your religion really does require you to discriminate against your gay relatives and neighbors, I suggest you move to Kampala, or some other godforsaken place.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.