by Morris Dees, Founder, Chief Trial Attorney
As Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer decides this week whether to veto a bill allowing business owners to deny service to LGBT customers because of their own religious beliefs, I’m reminded of an earlier era when a similar form of discrimination was rampant.
As a boy and young man living in Alabama, I remember well a time when African Americans routinely entered movie theaters through side doors, bought food from a backdoor takeout, or sat in “colored” waiting rooms at their doctor’s office. Often, they were refused service altogether at white-owned businesses.
And I remember hearing all sorts of justification for this discrimination, including religious views. One justification I heard was that God did not intend for the races to mix and that God set the white race apart to care for the “subhuman” species.
But after nearly a century of Jim Crow segregation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 opened these closed doors to people of color. And though many business owners resisted, eventually those barriers fell and black people no longer had to endure the everyday indignity of being treated like second-class citizens.
Now, the Arizona legislature has passed a bill that once again uses religion as a cover for bigotry.
It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.
Unfortunately, as we all know, discrimination against LGBT people is not limited to Arizona.
In the Deep South, where it’s widespread, we’re fighting in court to help the LGBT community overcome barriers to equality. In one case, for example, we’re seeking justice for a lesbian who was denied the right to open a bar that would welcome LGBT people. A local Baptist church led the opposition.
We’re making progress in the courts. But we need political leadership as well.
We urge Gov. Brewer to veto the Arizona bill. More importantly, just as we needed federal legislation to end Jim Crow segregation, we need Congress to prevent Arizona and other states that might follow its lead from using religion to legalize discrimination. It’s time for our nation to add sexual orientation to the Civil Rights Act to stop the so-called “religious freedom” movement in its tracks.