Discrimination in the Name of Jesus

How “religious liberty” is becoming discrimination by another name.

As African-American pastors and Civil Rights leaders, we are alarmed by the pending Mississippi bill that would allow business leaders to discriminate against customers in the name of religious liberty. Such laws eerily echo the Jim Crow laws and their religious support among white supremacists that robbed African Americans of their basic human dignity.

Some have questioned the comparison between gays and blacks in the Jim Crow analogy, contending that sexual orientation may be less immutable than race. But as Christians and as people who still experience the deep pain of discrimination, we must oppose laws that would give permission to treat any group of people in a discriminatory fashion for any reason — and especially not in the name of religion and certainly not in the name of Jesus.

In Jim Crow America, Southern states enshrined racial discrimination in laws that created a separate and wholly unequal society for generations of African-American families. Throughout our childhoods, blacks were barred from “whites only” public accommodations and subjected to all manner of demeaning treatment under the law. Even after a series of Supreme Court rulings gradually overturned segregation laws, private entities such as businesses and political parties were allowed to discriminate — barring not only blacks, but also Jews and Asians from buying homes in certain neighborhoods and going to certain stores and restaurants.

South Carolina restaurateur Maurice Bessinger, famous for his barbecue eateries and sauces, refused to serve African Americans in his restaurant in the 1960s, personally standing in the door of his establishment in at least one instance to bar a black minister from entering. In 1968, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Bessinger’s Jim Crow restaurant, though Bessenger continued for decades to sell pro-slavery tracts (with lines like: “African slaves blessed the Lord for allowing them to be enslaved and sent to America”) at his Confederate flag-clad restaurant.

In 2000, when a South Carolina columnist exposed this practice large retailers took note and removed his sauce from their shelves. Bessinger said the boycott violated his religious freedom. He argued that he wasn’t anti-black — he was just pro-private property rights.

Today, such an argument sounds absurd. And yet it’s remarkably similar to arguments made by proponents of today’s discrimination bills, who claim they are not anti-gay but simply pro-religious freedom for businesses. While the new Mississippi law does not make segregation mandatory, it provides a loophole through which private businesses can, in effect, create a segregated society. The spirit animating this law is similar to that which drove Jim Crow: fear of a particular category of people and misinformation about the Bible’s teachings about how we treat people who are different from ourselves.

The impetus behind the new law appears to be a few cases in which businesses were sued for refusing service to gay customers. While our own churches continue to debate gay marriage, our perspective on the Mississippi law remains the same: such behavior allowed by a place of public accommodation violates basic human dignity and brings back shameful behavior the Civil Rights movement fought so hard to eradicate.

Jesus made it clear that God’s love was for everybody. He intentionally reached out to people who were marginalized and ostracized in his day. Many whose lives he touched were people rightly or wrongly deemed sinful.

Jesus was less concerned about piety than about hypocrisy. To those about to stone a woman caught in adultery, Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” He reserved his strongest rebuke for religious leaders who enforced the moral laws of the day, but lacked compassion.

Jesus told his followers that the world would know we are Christians by our love. Today, people seem to know Christians not by our love, but by our desire to be able to discriminate.

How Jim Crow could have been maintained in a Christian society is baffling. But we know what it took to dismantle it: a non-violent, faith based movement calling for beloved community. Christians should be known as those who transform society not by insisting on our own way or asking for permission to discriminate, but by turning the other cheek and loving all people for who they are — children of God.

As Christians, we support existing laws that protect churches, mosques and synagoguesBut people of faith who run for-profit companies that serve the public do not have the right to discriminate against citizens who want to buy a product or service. Fortunately, Arizona, Ohio and other states have already vetoed or abandoned the pursuit of such proposed legislation.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, “No one is free until we all are free.” When we seek to codify legislation that enables us to discriminate against any class of people—no matter what we think of their beliefs or lifestyle — we damage religious freedom and our democracy. Most of all, we compromise the Great Commandment — to love God and love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

  • Jim Atwood

    Discrimination in the Name of Jesus is crystal clear as it denounces the hypocrisy of Mississippi’s attempt to use so-called ” religious freedom” to deny the constitutional and human rights of gays and lesbians. Even more heinous is Mississippi’s unwritten assumption that certain individuals are to be treated with unequal justice. Thanks to J. Herbert Nelson and James Perkins for pulling back the curtain and letting us take a look at The latest version of Jim Crow.

    • Big Giant Head

      Let’s throw ‘em all in prison; how dare they go against the tide!

  • Big Giant Head

    This is great. I’m all for forcing people to adhere to our dear leader’s wishes. If someone doesn’t want to bake a cake for a gay wedding, let’s destroy their business. We have to force the stragglers to come along; frankly if they don’t they should be jailed.

  • Big Giant Head

    I’m, also glad it is okay for a gay hairdresser to refuse service to the governor of New Mexico for her views on traditional marriage. Hopefully we can get that governor locked up and silenced. Keep up the good work!

  • Ken Wilson

    hmmmm comparing the GAY lifestyle to jim crow laws, basically…is disturbing…blacks had no rights, and that was wrong as they are just like us white folks….gay life is chosen and in Gods eyes an abomination..what is wrong with thePCA…YOU HAVE BECOME LUKEWARM…AND WE KNOW WHERE THAT LEADS FOLKS…REPENT

  • CP

    This is an ad hominem. You can tell because the author fails to accurately describe those with whom he disagrees. Right here:

    ” The spirit animating this law is similar to that which drove Jim Crow: fear of a particular category of people and misinformation about the Bible’s teachings about how we treat people who are different from ourselves.”

    The equivalent here would be to rant that opponents of the law hate Christianity because it teaches a moral code that violates a post-modern relativistic worldview, and therefore seek to force Christians to conform to value sets not their own, and are willing to use the violence of the State in order to do so.

    Both would be equal parts abusive and divorced from reality, uncharitable attempts to paint ones’ opposition as not only different, or wrong, but evil. It is an attempt to discredit ones’ opposition from even being worthy enough to debate. That should be a tactic we leave to rhetorical bullies, not use amongst ourselves. The actual origination this movement is a reaction to some recent cases where homosexual couples were able to bring the power of the state to bear to punish people who did not wish to partake in their wedding; a photographer in one case, a baker in the other. The spirit that animates this movement is the notion that people should not be forced to actively participate in ceremonies that violate their religious beliefs.

    Jim Crow sought to hold a people down, to restrict their freedom. This movement does not – It’s hardly like there is only one photographer in the state of Arizona, or one baker in Denver Colorado. It is also critically worth noting that Jim Crow had to be enforced by the state – the state had to restrict and threaten to punish business owners who served whites and blacks the same, whereas this movement seeks to restrict the state FROM forcing any actor into any action. The question is “who is using the threat of violence” via state enforcement. With the Civil Rights movement, that was Jim Crow. With this question, it is homosexual-movement activists. No baker or photographer has attempted to demand that the state ensure that the homosexual couples in question be unable to access ANYONE who sells their services, only that they be free to choose not to participate in the ceremonies THEMSELVES. The story was the opposite with Jim Crow.

    Many in this movement also note the ratchet-effect of recent history, and additionally fear that the precedent will be used to force religious organizations in non-explicitly religious activities (for example, many churches host Pre-Schools, and rent out their sanctuaries to non-member couples who wish to have weddings) to conform as well. The argument is simple: businesses aren’t allowed to make sale/no sale decisions based on a moral view of sexuality, churches renting out a space are engaging in business, churches who refuse to host weddings are therefore trampling on the rights of others just like Bull O’Connor. That argument is flawed, but it is flawed in the same way that the argument against a baker is flawed, or that the argument against a florist is flawed – we aren’t only Christians in worship, we are Christians in everything that we do, and in our society homosexuals are not denied ANY access by State enforcement of a system, but rather risk having to choose another baker for their cake.

    The unwillingness of the author to even extend the slightest modicum of Christian charity in the form of at recognizing that people who disagree with his MEANS may not be doing so from evil MOTIVES is sadly typical of modern political debate. This could have been a fantastic article, had it been written positively as a “our concerns are that we are opening the door for X” rather than an attack on others as “well secretly you must want to do X”. There are good arguments on both sides. This isn’t one of them.

  • Freedom’sBell

    Whatever happened to ‘go and sin no more’? Love does not exclude correction but requires it.

  • gloster2

    Thank you for writing this.