States should act to end discrimination

Kristen Hooper, center, and Robert Loyd, right, hold a sign on the steps of the Arkansas state Capitol thanking Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson for calling for changes to a religious objection measure in Little Rock, Ark., Wednesday, April 1, 2015. The measure faced a backlash from businesses and gay rights groups. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Indiana’s state Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed into law last week, is a flawed and misguided piece of legislation. Gov. Mike Pence rightfully demanded that the Indiana Legislature send him a “fix” by the end of this week to ensure that it cannot be used to discriminate against anyone.

On Wednesday, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson refused to sign a similar bill until the state legislature made changes to ensure that it prevented discrimination.

That’s a smart decision, and the language Mr. Pence used in a press conference Tuesday to defend his request for a legislative fix is some of the strongest a prominent Republican has used to defend the LGBT community.

“No one should be harassed or mistreated because of who they are, who they love or what they believe. I believe it with all my heart,” he said.

But all of the media furor, planned boycotts and other highly public outcry stemming from the Indiana and Arkansas bills overlooks a much more concerning issue: It was already legal to discriminate against gay people in those states. That’s because sexual orientation is not covered in Indiana or Arkansas civil rights laws.

In Indiana and Arkansas — as in South Carolina and at least two dozen other states — it is perfectly legal for a gay person to be fired from work, denied housing or even refused service in a restaurant or bar on the sole basis of his sexual orientation. Such discrimination requires no religious motive, and the gay victims have little or no legal recourse to challenge those decisions.

That must change.

There is no substantive difference between sexual orientation and other protected categories like skin color, age or gender. So there should be no reason to leave such a vulnerable minority group broadly exposed to discrimination.

Religious belief and the right to speak and worship freely deserve the strongest possible protections under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Those rights ensure that our nation remains vibrant, creative and dynamic, setting a standard of free thought that remains a model for the entire world.

But commerce is not the same as speech, and it’s certainly not the same thing as worship or religious belief.

So should a florist be required to provide flowers for a gay marriage? Should an inn owner be required to offer an available room to a gay couple? Should a restaurant owner be required to serve a gay couple celebrating a special occasion?

The short answer is yes.

Millions of people around the country hold the sincere religious belief that homosexuality is wrong, sinful or otherwise harmful. Restricting those people’s right to refuse service to gay men and women would force them to deal directly with human beings whose lives and relationships they cannot morally justify.

That could pose a substantial burden for some people. But secular, non-church businesses are already required to deal with otherwise reasonable customers with whom they may strongly disagree or find to be objectionable in some way.

Sexual orientation should not be treated any differently.

The fact that many business owners find gay relationships — and marriage in particular — to be morally wrong does not make anyone a bigot, ignorant or hateful. But neither does it allow them to discriminate.

Allowing businesses to turn away gay customers causes grievous harm to men and women who have too long been forced to the margins of society for expressing their personal identities. Fear of precisely that kind of shaming and rejection forces too many gay people into the crushing self-denial of the closet or a lifetime of dishonesty and failed relationships. Some even choose to take their own lives.

That is a terrible human tragedy, and it can only be stopped by taking a strong stance against discrimination.

Asking that gay men and women be treated the same as everyone else does not constitute an assault on religious freedom. Nor does it infringe on anyone’s right to free speech. It simply reiterates the highest ideals upon which this nation was founded, and the laudable equality, cooperation and tolerance to which we have aspired since then.

On Wednesday, South Carolina Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, filed a bill that would expand the state’s definition of discrimination to include sexual orientation. Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, announced that he would introduce a similar bill when the House returns from a two-week recess. State leaders should have the courage to back that change.

It’s time for South Carolina, Indiana and every other state to add sensible sexual orientation protections under civil rights law. Doing so would help ensure the most vigorous protections for both religious freedom and basic human dignity.

Ed Buckley is a staffer for the Post and Courier editorial department.