Fighting Discrimination

Religious Freedom Should Not Be A License To Discriminate

  Rob Boston

Today the nation celebrates the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader was tragically assassinated on April 4, 1968; it’s fitting to pause today to remember and honor his accomplishments.

Anyone who reads the history of the civil rights movement will be struck by the range of arguments segregationists used to defend their sad cause: They insisted it was a matter of states’ rights, that Southern culture and traditions mandated separation of the races and that African Americans were violent or “inferior.”

Some even raised religious freedom as a defense. Maurice Bessinger, an avowed segregationist and owner of a chain of barbeque restaurants in South Carolina called Piggie Park, continued to refuse to serve blacks even after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A class-action lawsuit was filed against Bessinger, who attempted to defend himself by arguing that the civil rights law “contravenes the will of God.” In court, his attorneys went further, asserting that Bessinger’s “religious beliefs compel him to oppose any integration of the races whatever.”

Federal courts didn’t buy it. One judge wrote, “Undoubtedly defendant Bessinger has a constitutional right to espouse the religious beliefs of his own choosing, however, he does not have the absolute right to exercise and practice such beliefs in utter disregard of the clear constitutional rights of other citizens…”

A portion of the case, Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises Inc., reached the U.S. Supreme Court. By the time the matter got to the high court, the justices were considering a narrow question concerning whether the lawyers who had brought the legal challenge should be able to be reimbursed for the fees they spent on it. The court ruled 8-0 that they could, but in a footnote called Bessinger’s religious freedom argument “patently frivolous.”

Bessinger wanted to deny services to an entire class of people, African Americans, because of his religious beliefs. Today, we’re hearing arguments that businesses should be able to deny goods and services to other groups of people, usually members of the LGBTQ community, on the basis of owners’ religious beliefs.

King and others fought hard – and some gave their lives – to end segregation and racial bias in restaurants, transportation systems, hotels, stores and other places deemed public accommodations. We’re a better nation for their efforts; we can’t go back.

Attempts to undo King’s work and instill policies of discrimination under the cover of religious freedom failed 50 years ago. It would tarnish the man’s legacy – as  well as make a mockery of the principle of religious freedom – if they were given new life today.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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