Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Why The Christian Right May Never Recover From Indiana

Maurice Bessinger built his fortune serving barbecue. At the half-dozen locations of his Piggie Park restaurants, customers could enjoy meats slathered in the yellow, mustard-based sauce unique to South Carolina. That is, of course, unless they were black, for Bessinger was also a proud racist. As late as the twenty-first century, Piggie Park distributed tracts to its customers claiming that the Bible is a pro-slavery document — one of them claimed that African slaves “blessed the Lord for allowing them to be enslaved and sent to America.” After Congress banned whites-only restaurants in 1964, Bessinger reportedly put up an uncensored version of a sign warning that “[t]he law makes us serve n***ers, but any money we get from them goes to the Ku Klux Klan.”

And Bessinger wasn’t just an unapologetic racist, he also believed that his right to discriminate flowed from the Lord Almighty himself. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned whites-only lunch counters, “contravenes the will of God,” according to a lawsuit Bessinger brought claiming he should be exempt from the law. The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling 8-0 in Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises that Bessinger’s claim that a religious objection could authorize discrimination was “patently frivolous.”

Piggie Park was resolved in 1968, but Bessinger’s legal claim that religion should provide a license to discriminate rears its head over and over again in modern American history. It reared its head just over a week ago in Indiana, when religious conservatives briefly pushed through legislation that could have enabled them to ignore local ordinances protecting against anti-LGBT discrimination.
Yet, while the argument that religious objections can authorize discrimination is not new and has not typically fared well in court, the tactic anti-gay groups deployed in Indiana — enacting a law expanding the scope of “religious freedom” for the very purpose of protecting discrimination — is of much more recent vintage. As marriage equality appears more and more inevitable, and as the nation as a whole grows increasingly sympathetic toward LGBT rights, opponents of these rights hope to build a firewall against America’s broader culture. And this firewall rests on a foundation very similar to the arguments Maurice Bessinger once presented to the Supreme Court. READ MORE

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