As the 2015 legislative session was coming to a close, Gov. Asa Hutchinson made a particularly telling comment explaining why the original "religious freedom" bill passed by the Arkansas General Assembly (HB 1228) was in need of withdrawal or revision. His comments were at least partially motivated by growing public perception that the bill would increase discrimination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Arkansans. Hutchinson stated, "This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial, but these are not ordinary times."
These are not "ordinary times" as justifications of LGBT discrimination do not persuade as effectively as they have in the past. The defense of LGBT discrimination is expressed in opposition to both same-sex marriage and to the addition of "sexual orientation and gender identity" to civil rights protections. Those opponents are at increasing loss for language to defend their positions without appearing to support discrimination.
As acceptance of LGBT people and same-sex marriage has increased, more ways to explain and justify the discriminatory status quo are needed beyond appeals to tradition ("we've always done it that way") or appeals to conservative interpretations of religious ethics. The problem for defenders of LGBT discrimination is finding alternative justifications that can withstand scrutiny from those who don't already strongly agree with LGBT discrimination.
There is a growing commitment to fairness in the American public, and this deepened resolve toward fairness is a challenge to the perpetuation of all sorts of discrimination. Today's younger generation is particularly sensitive to the call for fairness to those considered different in varieties of ways, as illustrated in children's and young adult movies, TV shows and books. For them (as we adults in our culture have taught them), it is wrong to discriminate against those who are different from the majority in ways that are not seen as harmful. Increasingly, sexual orientation and gender identity are seen, especially in the younger generation, as ethically neutral differences — just different ways of being who one is in the world.
For a growing number of Americans and Arkansans, this more expansive view of fairness is understood as an issue of justice supported by their understanding of the promise of America and as having roots in their faith traditions. Although often portrayed in the media as a conflict between religious defenders of tradition and non-religious defenders of LGBT protections, more and more religious people are among those advocating for LGBT civil rights.
Feeling the loss of public support for traditional justifications of LGBT discrimination, opponents are desperate to find new arguments to persuade that LGBT discrimination should be preserved. Here are some examples of alternative justifications and language that have been tried along with their weaknesses:
Marriage is not appropriate for same-sex couples as marriage is about procreation — yet heterosexual couples are not required to be able to procreate to be able to marry.
Same-sex parents are harmful to children — however the preponderance of research does not support this statement.
LGBT people want "special rights" — the rights wanted by LGBT people are the same rights wanted and enjoyed by others: "equal rights" rather than "special rights."
Religious people need civil rights protections to be able to "believe what they believe" (Rep. Bob Ballinger) — but belief is not the issue. The issue is practice or expression of beliefs. For example, one may believe that women should not work outside the home, but if that one discriminates against a woman seeking a job, we have decided that this kind of behavior is unjust and will not be permitted under the law.
Sometimes, the defenses against LGBT civil rights protections cross over into the absurd. State Sen. Bart Hester (on National Public Radio's "The Takeaway," April 1) defended the need for increased protections for religiously motivated behavior by making the point that a Jewish baker should not be forced to bake a cake with a swastika on it. This illustration only makes sense if the baker sold cakes with swastikas on them to some customers but refused to do so to other customers. The example also puts a symbol of the murder of 11 million people on the same moral plane as two people who love each other and want to get married.
Another absurd example was U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton's comments regarding concerns for LGBT discrimination: "I think it's important we have a sense of perspective about our priorities. In Iran, they hang you for the crime of being gay." Pointing out that other societies are even more unjust is poor justification for local injustice.
"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice," said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and in this generation, it is bending with growing speed toward LGBT civil rights protections. The justifications to oppose or delay justice for LGBT citizens are appropriately falling apart. Individual personal beliefs should not restrict legal fairness for others, for to do so is unjust discrimination. In the end, it's that simple.
Greg Adams is a licensed social worker involved in palliative care at Arkansas Children's Hospital and was a member of the Little Rock School Board that was dismantled by the state Department of Education.