Reg Henry: Idea has a hellish quality

February 28, 2014 

It has long been my belief that the devil recruits certain unwitting people, fills them up with self-righteousness and sends them out into the world in order to make Christianity look ridiculous. The recent news suggests that Beezlebub has been busy in Arizona.

That is depressing. As a regular churchgoer, although thankfully not in Arizona, I do not want to appear ridiculous by extension. It is enough that I write editorials in the newspaper.

But in Arizona, fools have rushed in where angels (and sensible mortals, too) feared to tread. Lawmakers there passed a bill that many Americans rightly denounce as an open invitation to discrimination, especially against gays, all in the name of religious freedom.

Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed it; yet the fact that this came up at all is indicative of the crabbed thinking at large in the country. Other states are considering similar measures.

The Arizona bill does not single out gays, nor does it mention Christianity. Under the statute, any religious belief will do for purposes of equal-opportunity bigotry. However, as this is America, the ayatollahs who don't consider tolerance a virtue happen to be Christian. They are not among the vast numbers of non-ridiculous Christians; instead, they belong to the subset who have edited "Judge not and be not judged" to read "Judge."

And they are entitled to their opinions, because being a jerk -- religious or otherwise -- is a fundamental right in this great land of ours, although if enough jerks get their way it soon won't be great. Of course, supporters of the bill say that this bill is a mere tweaking of existing law and its purpose is to reinforce the principle that a religious person shouldn't have to leave beliefs behind when he or she leaves home.

To that end, a person is defined expansively -- and not just as a church but also a corporation or business. Where have we heard that one before? The way this notion of corporations as people is going, the rest of us may have to consider incorporating ourselves just for a chance to get into heaven.

This is how such a law would likely play out: If a gay couple goes to a florist, the florist can cite religious belief in not selling them any flowers for their wedding. If they go to a baker for a wedding cake, the baker can refuse on the same grounds.

As reported by The New York Times, these are actual examples of what happened in other states in situations where couples sued. In Arizona, citing religious belief would be a defense against such lawsuits.

It's not just florists and bakers. The fear is that religious busybodies won't sell certain prescriptions to certain people, won't take their photographs or book them on a cruise or rent an apartment to them. If you are seeking service and happen to look sideways at a member of the First Church of Not Looking Sideways, you will be shown the door. Gay people will be treated like black people were once treated -- and the perpetrators will feel good despite being so wrong.

Nobody will be safe because unlike the case with skin pigmentation, whether people are gay or not is not always clear. Well, actually, I will be safe, because I have long appeared unattractive to both sexes and therefore am not a candidate for hanky-panky, but many of you will be suspect.

Will you men have to carry a copy of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition just to prove you like girls? Will landlords and other moral exemplars seek clues about would-be clients on the basis of questions about show tunes and interior decoration?

A better way would be for people who don't want to compromise their beliefs to just go get another job. They don't have a constitutional right to be a baker or florist. Employees who don't like their jobs are always told to get new ones. Why are employers exempt from the same principle?

Or else those offended could just mind their own business -- now, there's a concept -- or do unto others as they would have done unto themselves. Did Jesus stipulate that any gay people in the crowd should not share in the loaves and fishes?

Once more the devil is in the details -- and it will be hell for America if religion becomes the fresh justification for discrimination under the law.

Reg Henry, deputy editorial page editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; rhenry@post-gazette.com.

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