While scrolling through Facebook this morning, I found links to two recent articles from the New York Times that had been shared by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. The first one, “Alabama’s Dangerous Defiance,” dealt with the absurd situation playing out in Alabama, with the State Supreme Court defying a Federal Court’s finding that the state’s refusal to grant same-sex couples the right to marry was unconstitutional. The second one, “States Weigh Legislation to Let Businesses Refuse to Serve Gay Couples,” deals with the current rash of state legislatures rushing to try to enact copycat laws that would permit private businesses – including not just wedding photographers and cake-bakers, who seem to be getting an awful lot of attention in these arguments, but pharmacists, doctors, real estate agents, bankers, etc.- to discriminate against not just LGBTQ folk, but literally anyone who runs afoul of the individual’s “deeply-held religious beliefs.” This same attempt at legalizing discrimination goes even further in some states’ versions of the bills, including not just the private sector, but public employees, as well – from doctors to firefighters to teachers to clerks of court to bus drivers, any of whom could refuse service to you because of some perceived conflict between you and their personal religious beliefs.
I was born in 1960. The civil rights marches, protests, and violence that ripped our nation apart in that decade are things that were going on only on the vague fringes of my childhood awareness and memories – I knew there was something going on, but I was too young to really comprehend a lot of it or feel that it really had anything to do with me. As I got older, I came to understand more about its significance, and I wished that I’d been just a bit older and could have been involved in it – while at the same time, wondering if, at that time in my life, I’d have been on the right side of the debate. I want to think that I would have been, but I’m ashamed to admit that given the cultural soup we were swimming in during those years, I’m not absolutely sure I would have.
Now, fifty years later, not only are we seeing an erosion of some of the gains won during that movement, we’re also seeing many parallels between the current battles for LGBTQ equality and those earlier ones. The issues involved here are an ugly replay of the same kind of shameful bigotry and intolerance, not to mention Constitutional ignorance, that was fought against back then; in this particular instance, some of it is even being waged over the same geography. The idea here, that individuals, by way of the ballot box, have a right to violate other people’s Constitutional rights, and to have those violations shored up by state courts and publicly elected officials who claim the superiority of so-called states’ rights and sovereignty over the overarching federal Constitution as it’s interpreted by the federal court system, are some of the exact same arguments that were used to try to justify denial of civil rights to blacks, women, and other groups, and even to justify slavery itself.
When Abraham Lincoln helped to dedicate the national cemetery in Gettysburg in 1863, he talked about those soldiers who had been buried there, saying that they’d died in order for the nation to have a new birth of freedom, and so that we would remain a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people;” people who were created equally and who have equal rights. Lincoln said that it was the duty of us, the living, to dedicate ourselves to continue, and hopefully complete, their unfinished work.
Over the years, many have done just that, continuing to speak, and write, and protest, and die, in order for our country to live more fully into its founding principles. Now, in 2015, we’re fighting another ongoing battle in the same long war, having to push back against the exact same tired and hateful arguments that the federal courts have ruled time and again are unconstitutional in past battles. No, ballot boxes do not trump Constitutional rights. No, state courts and judges do not trump federal ones. No, religious freedom is not absolute. There is no inalienable right to engage in hatred based on so-called “deeply held religious beliefs” outside of one’s church doors. It’s wrong and immoral enough to do it inside those doors, but at least within their boundaries, you have a Constitutional right to be an intolerant bigot if you wish.
So now, in my fifties, I have the opportunity for a do-over of sorts. I wasn’t part of the historic struggle for equality that took place when I was a kid. Now I can be, and I am. Yes, this particular struggle affects me much more directly than the one fought In the 60s. Even if it didn’t, though, I’m glad to know that I would have chosen to be on the right side of both God’s love and history, and would have worked and spoken out for full LGBTQ equality in society, and in the church, even if I weren’t gay myself.
Roy Moore and George Wallace are connected in this battle. But I feel very much a part of who, and what, has gone before me, too. I feel connected with those who stood up for the exact same issue In the past, whether the actual physical battlefield was Christopher Street in the West Village, or a Birmingham jail cell, or a Presbyterian Church in Seneca Falls, New York (google it), or Culp’s Hill in Gettysburg.