I wrote this column in mid-April after returning from a weeklong trip that took me through some Southern states, specifically Louisiana and Tennessee. On this journey I experienced some things that were quite new to me, including new foods and new ways to spend a Sunday morning.
The trip started in New Orleans with an event titled “Freedom for All Faiths,” sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union that took place at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans. I spoke alongside historian John Barry, author of a book on religious liberty pioneer Roger Williams, and Marjorie Esman, director of the ACLU of Louisiana. Louisiana’s native son, the Rev. Welton Gaddy, served as moderator.
We had good questions about the Obama administration’s lack of interest in cracking down on illegal church politicking and the effect of having an eight-member Supreme Court.
The next evening we had a similar event in Lafayette, La., joined by Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and Pedro L. Irigonegaray, a civil liberties attorney.
This audience included a few people recognized by our supporters as leaders of the local Tea Party movement. They were not disruptive, but I did notice some whispering and grimaces when certain topics (evolution and contraception) came up.
On the way to Lafayette, I met some supporters at a famous crawfish restaurant. I was a few minutes late to the barn-like structure, and the food had already arrived when I got there. Forty pounds of boiled crawfish and several bowls of fried “gator tails” were delivered to our tables.
As a Pennsylvania native, I don’t have a lot of experience with Southern cuisine. The alligator bits were tasty, but I’ll admit I needed a little help with how to eat the crawfish. I was told there’s no reason to do more than extract the tail meat and occasionally, if the claws are gigantic, try for a bit of meat there.
“This isn’t a lobster, you know”, someone sitting near me joked. Actually, I didn’t know. To me the crawfish looked like lobsters that had been hit by some kind of intergalactic shrinking ray.
After another day in Louisiana, I headed up to Nashville. My first event was speaking to the Sunday Assembly, a gathering of science-focused secularists who get together once a month at a local college auditorium to socialize and listen to speakers, readers and (of course) a rock band. This assemblage is based on an idea that has travelled across the pond from England and is designed to get non-theistic folks together on the day that is conventionally associated with church services.
It was a fun event. Attendees had picked the songs to be done “karaoke style” with the words printed on a big screen in the front. The theme was “freedom,” and the tunes were from Bob Marley and even Kacey Musgraves. If you’ve never heard of Kacey, she is a big country star who sings about divorce, sex, drugs and feminism – but does so in a manner that doesn’t always make her tunes playable on the radio.
I came to the South during a tough time for that region. Several states were grappling with so-called “religious freedom” bills that don’t actually have much to do with religious freedom. Rather, they are attempts by legislatures and governors to express their irritation with the Supreme Court for upholding marriage equality in June.
These bills allow people (sometimes even state officials) to discriminate against anyone whose existence offends their religious beliefs. So a transgender male who wants a haircut can be turned away at the barber shop, lesbians can be denied a room at a B&B and a same-sex couple looking for a caterer for their wedding can be sent packing – all in the name of “religious freedom.”
Bills were considered, passed and signed by governors in Mississippi and North Carolina and were pending in others (not all in the South, to be fair). One bright spot: a bill like this was vetoed by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.
After meeting some donors and running into one of the Nashville musicians who has done some Voices United concerts for us, Phil Madeira, I was off to teach a political science class at Vanderbilt University.
As my plane was leaving, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam was still contemplating what he’d do with a bill that would let mental-health counselors use their religious beliefs as grounds to refuse to serve certain patients. He also vetoed a bill to make the “Holy Bible” the official state book, where it would join the raccoon as state wild animal and the Barrett .50 caliber as state sniper rifle.
Governance can sure be a drag some days.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.