By MEUSA National Media Director Stuart Gaffney and MEUSA Director of Legal & Policy John Lewis
Arizona’s recently failed attempt to enact a law permitting restaurants, hotels, and other businesses to deny services to LGBT people, under the guise of religious liberty, rightly raised the ire of LGBT people and all those who oppose discrimination. The nationwide attention the bill received also has a silver lining.
It awakened Americans to the fact that LGBT people currently have no protections against discrimination in public accommodations under federal law, and that only 13 states prohibit such discrimination against LGBT people (and another 8 states outlaw such discrimination against lesbian and gay people). In other words, even without the failed legislation, businesses in 29 states, including Arizona, currently can discriminate against LGBT people with legal impunity (if no local ordinance exists) because these states have no statutes prohibiting such discrimination, and federal law contains no such prohibition.
Ironically, our opponents’ efforts to enact this draconian legislation have educated Americans to the fact that LGBT people need these legal protections nationwide. It’s time for those who oppose discrimination in all its invidious forms to demand federal legislation to prohibit such discrimination against LGBT people.
The vetoed Arizona legislation also reminds us once again that we are all in this struggle together. Former Congressman Norman Mineta, speaking to the Japanese American Citizens League about marriage discrimination against same-sex couples, said “a threat to anybody’s civil rights is a threat to the civil rights of all Americans.” Nowhere is this insight more evident than the Right Wing’s efforts, under the guise of religious protection, to undermine gains in equality that LGBT people, other minorities, and women have gained over the last six decades.
Later this month, the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments in cases where owners of public businesses claim that their religious views about contraception should take precedence over the medical choices that female employees and their doctors make about what is in the best interest of the women employees. A decision in favor of the owners could dramatically narrow women’s opportunities in the workplace, and limit their autonomy over medical decisions – all under the guise of religious freedom.
Similarly, interpreting the First Amendment to allow business owners to use religion to justify discrimination could open a gaping hole in many other statutes that prohibit discrimination again minorities and women in employment and public accommodations. After all, the trial court judge inLoving v. Virginia, the case in which the US Supreme Court ultimately overturned laws that banned interracial couples from marriage, ruled in favor such bans, proclaiming: “Almighty God created …(different) races …and placed them on separate continents…(this) fact…shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” Religion could once again be used in innumerable contexts to justify discrimination.
The backlash against the Arizona bill is already causing other state legislatures to rethink passing similar measures. It’s time to seize the moment and enact federal legislation to protect LGBT people from discrimination in public accommodations nationwide.