The United States of America is often referred to as a melting pot, a nation that boasts a kaleidoscopic array of cultures and influences that have informed its character since the country’s birth in the late 18th century. Sadly, diversity seems to be the last thing on the minds of the country’s conservative Christians, who are currently embroiled in bitter legal disputes over their continuing primacy in American society. In Texas, representatives are fighting vociferously to secure their state’s ban on same-sex marriage. Similar battles are occurring in Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia, whilst in Arizona, religious conservatives have recently sought to implement a bill that would allow business owners to refuse service to gay people.
These contemptible movements demonstrate the depressing extent of the religious Right’s influence on American politics. Flexing its considerable muscle, the god-fearing collective is threatening to demolish the advances made by progressive politicians and equality campaigners by distorting the concept of liberty to suit its own dogmatic agenda. The freedom to think, speak and act is being transmogrified into the freedom to discriminate and impose religious ideology on others.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has defended the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, arguing that state government should have the authority to regulate and define marriage. He is joined by Senator Ted Cruz, who recently introduced a bill to Congress attempting to preserve state control of the definitions of marriage and protect conservative preachers opposed to same-sex unions from any form of injunction or reprisal. Both speak as if state authority were virtuous and impermeable, obfuscating the matter of equality with talk of state autonomy and the apparent plight of Christian pastors. They fail to mention the profound discriminatory effect the Texan ban has already had on same-sex couples, relegating them to the position of second-class citizens, unable to acquire the same legal recognition as their heterosexual peers.
Thankfully, some good news has emerged from within this churning maelstrom of religious discontent. Within the last few days, US judge Orlando Garcia has ruled the Texas ban unconstitutional, one of several judicial decisions made across the US that has overturned discriminatory state laws. In Arizona, judicial intervention was not even required, as Governor Jan Brewer stepped in to veto what has become known as the ‘anti-gay’ bill. With the backing of equality groups and businesses, Brewer concluded that the consequences of such a bill passing would be disastrous and that it did not “address a specific or present concern related to religious liberty”
Yet the subject of religious liberty has proven to be catalytic for the many incendiary debates flaring up across the United States. It is true that the freedom of religious belief and practice is enshrined within the United States Constitution, but its inclusion into the Bill of Rights was for very different reasons than the ones currently utilised by the religious Right. In its nascent days, the United States saw an influx of non-conformists escaping persecution and deprivation in Europe. In order to accommodate the various religious factions that were vying for control and in some cases were openly hostile toward each other, the First Amendment of the Constitution was instituted to mandate, amongst other things, religious liberty and a secular government. As 3rd President Thomas Jefferson described in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists, this built a wall of separation between Church & State and was a means of stopping a religious majority imposing its will on minority groups.
In a perversion of historical precedent, evangelists now use religious liberty as a tool to inflict the sort of parochial dominion the First Amendment was designed to prevent, passing laws that directly discriminate against gay people and that are heavily influenced by the particulars of Christian doctrine. The influence and adoption of scripture in law would not have been tolerated in Jefferson’s time, but in an era where Christian votaries are in many cases pushing at an open door with their campaigns, it is no surprise that the spirit of the constitution has been largely forgotten. It is grimly ironic that for all the talk of religious liberty, the consequence of same-sex marriage bans and other discriminatory bills is the crushing of the liberty of others in the name of a religious creed that has no right to claim special dispensation from the Constitution.
However, as the Chicago Tribune reports, there is compelling evidence to suggest that more and more Americans are speaking out in favour of same-sex marriage and gay rights. The raft of judicial decisions that have come hammering down on state authorities are at the crest of what appears to be a swelling wave of public opinion. Perhaps the American people have grown wary of their friends, family members and neighbours being treated as aberrations by the state, or perhaps they see a fragment of themselves and their beloved country as they watch Russian authorities persecute gay people and African nations criminalise homosexuality. Whatever the reason, surveys have shown a dramatic upsurge in the amount of people who are supportive of same-sex marriage and gay rights, compared with results from the previous decade. The events in Texas and Arizona may be signs of a shift away from the prejudices of the religious Right that have blighted public life in the United States for so long.
If this is the case, it is highly unlikely that conservative Christians will relinquish their stranglehold on marriage laws without a fight. Subsequent legal appeals on the back of recent court rulings will undoubtedly be conducted with nothing less than a pugnacious fervour. What then remains is for Americans living in Texas, Utah, Virginia and all the other states where same-sex marriage is currently banned to decide whether to support those agitating for positive reform, to make a choice between forging a more equal society or to remain anchored to dogmatic principles of the past.
This article was originally published on the author’s blog, Contrarious.