Focus on the Family’s legal arm Citizen Link’s Bruce Hausknecht claimed this week that “religious freedom” laws that would allow Christians to refuse to serve gay people are “quite different” from “Jim Crow” laws that allowed white people not to serve black people.
According to Hausknecht, “religious freedom” laws that allow Christians discriminate are “message-oriented objection.”
“Christians object to furthering, celebrating, promoting same-sex marriage, which is contrary to their belief and that’s what these law simply do,” claimed Hausknecht.
However, discriminating against black people during Jim Crow days was also a “religious belief” and “message-oriented objection” of people who called themselves “Christians.”
Theodore Bilbo was one of Mississippi’s great demagogues. After two non-consecutive terms as governor, Bilbo won a U.S. Senate seat campaigning against “farmer murderers, corrupters of Southern womanhood, [skunks] who steal Gideon Bibles from hotel rooms” and a host of other, equally colorful foes. In a year where just 47 Mississippi voters cast a ballot for a communist candidate, Bilbo railed against a looming communist takeover of the state — and offered himself up as the solution to this red onslaught.
Bilbo was also a virulent racist. “I call on every red-blooded white man to use any means to keep the n[*]ggers away from the polls,” Bilbo proclaimed during his successful reelection campaign in 1946. He was a proud member of the Ku Klux Klan, telling Meet the Press that same year that “[n]o man can leave the Klan. He takes an oath not to do that.
Once a Ku Klux, always a Ku Klux.” During a filibuster of an anti-lynching bill, Bilbo claimed that the bill “will open the floodgates of hell in the South. Raping, mobbing, lynching, race riots, and crime will be increased a thousandfold; and upon your garments and the garments of those who are responsible for the passage of the measure will be the blood of the raped and outraged daughters of Dixie, as well as the blood of the perpetrators of these crimes that the red-blooded Anglo-Saxon White Southern men will not tolerate.”
For Senator Bilbo, however, racism was more that just an ideology, it was a sincerely held religious belief. In a book entitled Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization, Bilbo wrote that “[p]urity of race is a gift of God . . . . And God, in his infinite wisdom, has so ordained it that when man destroys his racial purity, it can never be redeemed.” Allowing “the blood of the races [to] mix,” according to Bilbo, was a direct attack on the “Divine plan of God.” There “is every reason to believe that miscengenation and amalgamation are sins of man in direct defiance to the will of God.”
Bilbo was one of the South’s most colorful racists, but he was hardly alone in his beliefs. As early as 1867, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld segregated railway cars on the grounds that “[t]he natural law which forbids [racial intermarriage] and that social amalgamation which leads to a corruption of races, is as clearly divine as that which imparted to [the races] different natures.” This same rationale was later adopted by state supreme courts in Alabama, Indiana and Virginia to justify bans on interracial marriage, and by justices in Kentucky to support residential segregation and segregated colleges.
In 1901, Georgia Gov. Allen Candler defended unequal public schooling for African Americans on the grounds that “God made them negroes and we cannot by education make them white folks.” After the Supreme Court ordered public schools integrated in Brown v. Board of Education, many segregationists cited their own faith as justification for official racism. Ross Barnett won Mississippi’s governorship in a landslide in 1960 after claiming that “the good Lord was the original segregationist.” Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia relied on passages from Genesis, Leviticus and Matthew when he spoke out against the civil rights law banning employment discrimination and whites-only lunch counters on the Senate floor.
Although the Supreme Court never considered whether Bilbo, Candler, Barnett or Byrd’s religious beliefs gave them a license to engage in race discrimination, a very similar case did reach the justices in 1983.
Bob Jones University excluded African Americans completely until the early 1970s, when it began permitting black students to attend so long as they were married. In 1975, it amended this policy to permit unmarried African American students, but it continued to prohibit interracial dating, interracial marriage, or even being “affiliated with any group or organization which holds as one of its goals or advocates interracial marriage.” As a result, the Internal Revenue Service revoked Bob Jones’ tax-exempt status.
This decision, that the IRS would no longer give tax subsidies to racist schools even if they claimed that their racism was rooted in religious beliefs, quickly became a rallying point for the Christian Right. Indeed, according to Paul Weyrich, the seminal conservative activist who coined the term “moral majority,” the IRS’ move against schools like Bob Jones was the single most important issue driving the birth of modern day religious conservatism. According to Weyrich, “[i]t was not the school-prayer issue, and it was not the abortion issue,” that caused this “movement to surface.” Rather it was what Weyrich labeled the “federal government’s move against the Christian schools.”
When Bob Jones’ case reached the Supreme Court, the school argued that IRS’ regulations denying tax exemptions to racist institutions “cannot constitutionally be applied to schools that engage in racial discrimination on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs.” But the justices did not bite. In an 8-1 decision by conservative Chief Justice Warren Burger, the Court explained that “[o]n occasion this Court has found certain governmental interests so compelling as to allow even regulations prohibiting religiously based conduct.” Prohibiting race discrimination is one of these interests.
(Sources: Focus on the Family and ThinkProgress.org)