For the past week or so, my Facebook feed and inbox have both been inundated with news of Mississippi’s House Bill 1523 (HB 1523), the recently passed legislation which either “protects religious liberties” or “enshrines discrimination and hate” depending on where you stand. An overwhelming majority of my friends – or at least the ones who’ve taken time to comment on it – clearly fall into the “it enshrines discrimination and hate” camp, which is understandable, given the bill’s reputation. But reputations, as we all know, are not always factual. (Remember Chopper the Junkyard Dog in Stand by Me?)
Information can be flawed. Bias can distort things. And some people, it has to be said, just really like to be outraged.
But to those friends of mine who do feel outrage about this bill (and they are my friends, who I care about and want only the best for), I want to ask an honest question: have you actually read it? Not internet memes about it. Not political cartoons about it. Not Stephen Colbert’s commentary on it. The bill itself. It’s freely available online. Have you searched it out, clicked the link, and read it? If not, I hope you will allow me to suggest, respectfully, that you might have been misled about what’s in it. Let’s take a look.
A Closer Look
Claim #1 – The bill makes it legal for medical practitioners (doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, etc.) to deny emergency care/treatment to gay men and women in need.
This was the claim that really caught my attention. Would the state government really make it legal to let someone die for being gay? Granted, I can’t imagine anyone in the medical profession, Christian or otherwise, refusing to treat someone in a desperate situation. And, beyond that, I’m not exactly sure how a doctor would be able to look at someone and know that they were gay. (Do gay men come swishing through emergency room doors, announcing, “Oh, girl, these chest pains are fab-u-lous!!”?) But was it true? Does the bill really make it legal for doctors to be that callous if they want to?
As it turns out, no, it doesn’t. In fact, it explicitly states that it is not saying that. Just read this excerpt from Section 3, c4 (note the part I’ve underlined and put in bold):
(4) The state government shall not take any discriminatory action against a person wholly or partially on the basis that the person declines to participate in the provision of treatments, counseling, or surgeries related to sex reassignment or gender identity transitioning or declines to participate in the provision of psychological, counseling, or fertility services based upon a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction described in Section 2 of this act. This subsection (4) shall not be construed to allow any person to deny visitation, recognition of a designated representative for health care decision-making, or emergency medical treatment necessary to cure an illness or injury as required by law.
In other words, not only can a doctor not deny emergency treatment to a gay man or woman, they also cannot deny their wives/husbands/partners the right to visit them or make important decisions concerning their health care.
The law does say that a doctor is not legally bound to take part in sex-change procedures, but it’s doubtful that any doctor you would go to for gender-reassignment has a problem with being there. A sex-change doctor who’s morally opposed to sex changes is not religious, he’s just lazy.
Claim #2 – The bill makes it legal for a Christian to deny marriage permits to gay couples
No, it doesn’t. Via Section 3, 8a:
(a) Any person employed or acting on behalf of the state government who has authority to authorize or license marriages, including, but not limited to, clerks, registers of deeds or their deputies, may seek recusal from authorizing or licensing lawful marriages based upon or in a manner consistent with a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction described in Section 2 of this act. Any person making such recusal shall provide prior written notice to the State Registrar of Vital Records who shall keep a record of such recusal, and the state government shall not take any discriminatory action against that person wholly or partially on the basis of such recusal. The person who is recusing himself or herself shall take all necessary steps to ensure that the authorization and licensing of any legally valid marriage is not impeded or delayed as a result of any recusal.
So, for example, let’s say Jack and Jill both work in an office where they can issue marriage licenses. Jack is a raging homophobe, but Jill was a theater major who binge-watches Will and Grace with all her favorite family members every weekend. HB 1523 basically says that if Jack is morally opposed to issuing gay marriage licenses, Jill can do it instead. The only conditions are: (1) Jack cannot stop (or even delay) a gay couple from getting a license; and (2) a gay couple cannot sue Jack for declining to issue the license himself. He goes his way; they go theirs. Can we all be happy with this?
Claim #3 – The bill makes it legal for employers, landlords, and businesses to fire people and throw them out for being gay
This is only true if a gay person works for and/or lives in a home owned by a religious organization that doesn’t approve of gay unions. Section 3, 1(b)(c)
The state government shall not take any discriminatory action against a religious organization wholly or partially on the basis that such organization:
(b) Makes any employment-related decision including, but not limited to, the decision whether or not to hire, terminate or discipline an individual whose conduct or religious beliefs are inconsistent with those of the religious organization, based upon or in a manner consistent with a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction described in Section 2 of this act; or
(c) Makes any decision concerning the sale, rental, occupancy of, or terms and conditions of occupying a dwelling or other housing under its control, based upon or in a manner consistent with a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction described in Section 2 of this act.
I’m not sure why any self-respecting gay person would want to work for or pay rent to Bigot Springs Baptist Church or whatever, but that’s not the point. The point is that this section of the law does not apply to every employer in the state. Gay men and women living in Mississippi cannot be fired from a job at, say, a law office or Wal-Mart for being gay. Similarly, a landlord at your typical apartment complex or townhouse rental cannot just toss gay tenants out for no reason. And if they do, good for the gay employees and tenants. It’s hella-lucrative discrimination lawsuit time!
The Larger Point (The Right to Discriminate)
I believe the point most people miss in all of this is that, even if it was legal for secular businesspeople to refuse employment to gay people, the vast majority of them still wouldn’t do it. As a general rule, bosses don’t care who you’re with when you go home. They just want you to do a good job while you’re at work.
The same is true when it comes to customers. Do you think McDonald’s or Tiffany’s cares whether the person buying a Big Mac or diamond is gay or straight, black or white, male or female? No. Everyone’s money spends the same way. Hell, I live in Korea, where a lot of older people despise Americans and hate the sound of English. But when I walk up to their food stalls and buy myself a snack, they’re all smiles, bows, and nods. If they mutter “Fat fucking Yankee foreigner” under their breaths when I walk off, I don’t care at all. Our relationship does not require them to like me on a personal level, and trying to legislate their opinions would be tyranny.
But let’s take a different look at it. Suppose I went to an elderly Korean woman’s food stall and she refused to serve me. Suppose she said “Fat fucking Yankee foreigner” right to my face and told me to get lost. Have my rights been violated? Is she required to take my money and give me a snack? In my worldview, the answer to both questions is a resounding no. It’s her food stall. If she wants to pick and choose her customers, so be it. I’m not hell-bent on bending her to my will and making her do something she doesn’t want to do. I’ll just find another food stall where I am welcome. And who knows? Maybe when all the foreigners start going to the more welcoming places, the elderly Korean woman will eventually change her policy or put herself out of business. The market is merciless against bigotry.
Here’s another example I often ask friends to consider. When I lived in New Orleans, I once had a laundromat conversation with an older gay man who said he didn’t care for big Bourbon Street hotspots like Oz. His reason? “Because they’re too filled up with giggly straight girls who just go there to dance.” He then reminisced about the 1970s when gay bars and clubs were more underground and exclusive. (In Biloxi-speak: Le Bistro, not Joey’s.) So, let’s say this man went and opened a bar that had a “Gay Men Only” policy. No breeders allowed. Would he be guilty of discrimination? In the strictest sense of the word, yes. But so what? It’s his bar. It’s his property, just like his home or his car. He should be the one making the decisions about it.
This is why I never understand what point some of my friends are trying to make when they say things like, “Oh, so if a vegetarian owns a bowling alley, you think it’s okay for them not to let meat-eaters go bowling?”
Once again, my answer is, “Well, most vegetarians wouldn’t do that. But
if they felt strongly enough about it, then sure. And anyway, I don’t want to go bowling anywhere that doesn’t serve chicken wings.”
If you can see the logic of these examples, you can see why it doesn’t bother me when some wedding photographers, florists, or bakeries choose not to cater gay weddings. It’s their business, a fact which HB 1523 recognizes:
(5) The state government shall not take any discriminatory action against a person wholly or partially on the basis that the person has provided or declined to provide the following services, accommodations, facilities, goods, or privileges for a purpose related to the solemnization, formation, celebration, or recognition of any marriage, based upon or in a manner consistent with a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction described in Section 2 of this act:
(a) Photography, poetry, videography, disc-jockey services, wedding planning, printing, publishing or similar marriage-related goods or services; or
(b) Floral arrangements, dress making, cake or pastry artistry, assembly-hall or other wedding-venue rentals, limousine or other car-service rentals, jewelry sales and services, or similar marriage-related services, accommodations, facilities or goods.
If that’s a problem, then the solution is not to force them to cater gay weddings, but to patronize businesses that do. Or, better yet, to start businesses that only cater to gay weddings. Congratulate the couples and make millions, I say. (This, by the way, is also the solution in other areas of conflict, such as gay adoption.)
If the state passed a law that said gay men and women couldn’t start such businesses – or that did deny them emergency medical care, legal marriage licenses, or employment – I would be among the first to protest. But this law, HB 1523, is not that law. Please read it for yourself and see if it’s really worth the outrage.