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 synagogues. But 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.