On Thursday Arizona state legislature approved a bill allowing business owners to discriminate against customers whom they feel would violate owners’ personal religious beliefs. SB 1062 does not specifically mention who would be excluded, although across the U.S., state legislatures are taking action to prevent potential lawsuits for refusal of service based on sexual orientation.
The Arizona bill uses religion-based discrimination as an exclamation point to already existing legislature, to strengthen the case for businesses, spurred by recent events, such as a federal judicial ruling that Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage in December 2013 is unconstitutional.
Within the same time frame, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Illinois allowed same-sex marriage. This has fueled the legislation purportedly to “protect” restaurants and other businesses which may be uncomfortable with LGBT patrons having their weddings there.
Arizona SB1062 would allow businesses to discriminate against whom they serve, but discrimination is a problem that persists beneath the surface unless you happen to be the recipient. Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – the Public Accommodations Act – prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, skin color, or national origin. No federal U.S. law requires that sexual orientation be added to that list, which means that legislatures and individual establishments can be as blatantly discriminatory as they wish, citing religion or no reason at all.
This was evident in the actions two years ago whereby Chick-fil-a entered the spotlight of religion-based discrimination. The company’s president and CEO, Mr. Cathy, strongly supports what he says is the Bible’s definition of the family and both spoke publicly and took actions to identify his business with the religious right. These actions included donation of food to outspoken groups against homosexuality, and millions of dollars in support to groups focused on both the defeat of same-sex marriage initiatives and providing therapy to change sexual orientation. As a result, Mr. Cathy was recognized as a hero among conservative Christians. In response, a New York woman, Carly McGehee, invited LGBTs to stage a kiss-in in August 2012.
Although the Public Accommodations Act was passed 50 years ago, it doesn’t prevent pervasive and insidious discrimination. Just six months ago, in South Carolina, an African American man and his party of 25 family and friends were prevented for two hours from entering a restaurant which they had patronized frequently in the past. They were there to celebrate a cousin’s last day in Charleston. The reason cited for not being seated was that a white customer felt “threatened” by them. While a restaurant owner has the right to refuse service based on the safety and welfare of guests and employees, the group had patiently waited and then was told by the manager that they were refused service because she had a right to do so and she “felt like it.” This was not religion-based discrimination; in fact, she indicated that there was no need to explain her actions.
Another instance which made headlines was Denny’s Restaurant lawsuit settlement in 1994 to pay more than $54 million because it had refused service to African American patrons or made them wait longer or pay more than whites. The lawsuit uncovered that these were not random acts. Rather, managers had received training to prevent a certain number of Black customers at one time and used the term “blackout” as a code word. Even though a flagrant violation of the Civil Rights Act, the discrimination was perpetuated unnoticed, except by those who experienced it.
In the 1960s, Blacks staged sit-ins at the lunch counter of restaurants, to gain public notice at not being served there prior to the Civil Rights Act. In 2012, lesbians and gays staged kiss-ins at Chick-fil-a’s across the nation. What actions might be taken to garner awareness of the long-lasting effect of religion-based discrimination?
Religion is a safe haven for the perpetuation of discrimination. Becoming aware of acts of discrimination – whether credited to religion or for no reason at all – is like peeling an onion. Under each layer is another, waiting to be examined.
Doctors must take the Hippocratic Oath – “First, do no harm.” Employees in the hospitality industry, though there to provide a service, have no such industry-wide motto. The definition of hospitality is the cordial reception of guests. Could service industry workers uphold such a mandate?
By Fern Remedi-Brown