Trickle Down Bigotry

The Trump-generated headlines and news clips suck up much of the media’s and the nation’s attention---from Colbert to CNN to Fox News it’s virtually all Trump, all the time. As we are inundated and outraged by Trump’s overt misdeeds, the insidious impact of his rhetoric and uncivil behavior frequently gets lost---it’s not as obvious and requires some spadework to be noticed.

This week the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington published a survey which explored the extent there is support for the notion that discrimination is justified if the discriminator is motivated by religious beliefs. Support for that belief has appreciably increased over the past five years (although still a minority view among Americans) especially with Republicans----nearly half believe that discriminatory denial of service is legal (up from only 21% in 2014).

The targets of discrimination for which so many Americans allow an excuse are gays and lesbians, transgender, atheists, Muslims and Jews. In the case of Jews, atheists and gays/lesbians the increase in those justifying discrimination has increased by over 50% since 2014. Those approving discrimination against gays and lesbians increased from 16% to 30%; against atheists from 15% to 24%; against Jews from 12% to 19%.

The sectors demonstrating the greatest willingness to allow bigotry against gays and lesbians are Republicans (47%) while 48% oppose the discrimination. Age plays a large role as well---seniors over 65 tolerate the discrimination at 39% (in 2014 support was at 17%) while Americans 18 to 29 years old accept it at 26% (12% in 2014).

Democrats support discrimination at 18% (close to where Republicans were in 2014).

Clearly, support for allowing discrimination based on religious beliefs is less tolerated than when the targets are gays or lesbians BUT the support for such conduct has also increased appreciably over the past five years.

The top graph shows the increase in support for discrimination against gays/lesbians, transgender, atheists, Muslims, Jews and African Americans over the past half-decade.

The PRRI poll also reveals the willingness of various religious to tolerate religiously and sexual orientation-based bigotry. Evangelical and mainline Protestants are far more willing to rationalize discrimination than are Catholics or non-white Protestants. Somewhat surprisingly in the case of transgender people and Jews, mainline Protestants are more willing to excuse discrimination than are evangelicals.

The study does not ascribe causes or speculate as the reasons for this disturbing change in attitudes.

It seems obvious that last year’s case involving the bakers in Colorado who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple (in which the US Supreme Court ruled in the bakers’ favor) has had an impact.

The news coverage of the decision left the distinct impression that civil rights and public accommodation laws have a loophole that one can drive a MACK truck through—claim a religious belief and the laws get stayed.

Adding to the notion that the laws have limited applicability is the impact of Trump and his rhetoric of intolerance. He has empowered many to not only express their hostility towards other groups (witness Charlottesville) but to also seek out rationales to legitimize their biases. Being intolerant today is not as lonely as it once was.

It wasn’t that many years ago when the Klan and like-minded bigots cloaked their hate in a mantle of religious justifications (Klan rallies burned crosses, not wreaths or other non-descript symbols).

Fortunately, a majority of Americans don’t buy this line of reasoning (67% reject the notion that religion can justify discrimination) though that number is down from 80% in 2014.

Additionally, California and its Unruh Civil Rights Act is broad in its application to “all business establishments of any kind whatsoever.”

Thirty-five years ago, I was involved in a case (Pines v Tomson, (1984) 160 Cal. App. 3d 370, 206 Cal. Rptr. 866) involving a business in California that discriminated against non-Christians in the advertising in would accept in its “Christian Yellow Pages.” The firm required an oath that an advertiser had accepted Jesus Christ as personal savior and was a “born-again” Christian.

The owners claimed devout religious motivation for their policy---it was “to strengthen the Christian community in which it is being published by pointing out some of the many businesses operated by Christians—therefore offering the entire community the opportunity to do business with Christian business people.” They talked about keeping money “within the body of Christ.”

The proprietors of the Christian Yellow Pages, argued, similar to those who today believe that their religious beliefs somehow trump statutes against discrimination. The California Court of Appeals didn’t buy that line of argument in 1984 and likely wouldn’t buy it today.

The court wrote,

while the application of the anti-discrimination laws over First Amendment objections has chiefly occurred in the context of racial or sexual discrimination, California has chosen to broadly interdict discrimination on the basis of religion on the same terms as discrimination on other invidious bases.

Thus, the California statutes at issue here may be viewed as implementing not only the Fourteenth Amendment's promise of equality, but also the greater guarantee of the California Constitution's equal protection clause, Article I section 7(a), and the guarantee of equality in the workplace and marketplace, provided by Article I section 8, which has no federal counterpart. California's interest in eradicating discrimination on the basis of race or sex is unquestionably “compelling” and is “unrelated to the suppression of ideas.”

‌The California court---unlike a portion of the public and the US Supreme Court--- recognized that non-discrimination is a compelling governmental interest that cannot be obviated by claims of a religious mandate to treat others unfairly.

As the Court of Appeals concluded, “Religious liberty ‘embraces two concepts---the freedom to believe and freedom to act. The first is absolute, but in the nature of things, the second cannot be.’” That is a lesson that needs to be retaught.

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