Jim Crow and Same-Sex Marriage

Two arguments stand out in the debate over whether we should allow private businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples. The first goes like this: for-profit businesses are religiously neutral; therefore they must cater to same-sex couples, regardless of any religious objections that the proprietors personally may have. (Non-profit, religious organizations, are, of course, exempt from this requirement.)

The second compares the discrimination against same-sex marriage to Jim Crow’s prohibition of interracial marriage.

To both, I respond that the debate is about what is right, not what is legal.

For-profit businesses and non-profit, religious organizations are legally distinct at the moment, but that does not mean that they have to remain so. At some point in the future, this distinction could be removed. Thus, it is irrelevant to the debate, which is about whether private citizens should be allowed to abide by their religious beliefs.

But lets assume that the legal distinction is never removed. We still expect businesses to abide by the same moral and ethical standards to which we hold each human being. We expect them not to rip off shareholders and clients. We expect them to hold honest accounts. We expect them not to hurt people. We punish them if they do not live up to those ideals. In other words, we expect the human beings who run them to behave like civilized human beings. But if we then tell those same human beings that they are not allowed to live by the very principles that guide their behavior, what message does that send? What right do we have to expect a “religiously neutral” business not to act with sociopathic, soulless abandon? How is it that a board of directors of a business suddenly becomes the opposite of the board of elders at a church?

It is only an act of law that creates that difference.

But legal is not necessarily moral.

Jim Crow was government. It was not a matter of private choice. Segregation was enforced by law or threat of death at the hands of hooligans who were de facto government enforcers. If your business served whites and blacks equally, you risked arrest or lynching. If your church performed interracial marriages, you risked the same.

Shall we also recall that Jim Crow trampled the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution? Black people were imprisoned for ridiculous crimes, like loafing or loitering. Hospitals would not serve black people. Schools were segregated and buses forced black people to sit in the back.

I am sure that there are laws against same-sex activity on the books in various localities, many of which probably prescribe frightening punishments, but those have been ignored as archaic for a long time. So let us not make a joke out of Jim Crow by comparing the treatment of same-sex couples to Jim Crow’s victims. Are there any same-sex couples being imprisoned for loitering? Not treated at hospitals? Segregated at school? Being forced to sit in the backs of buses?

If a police officer harasses a same-sex couple, he will be fired. If a same-sex couple is lynched, the lynchers will be punished. So there is no equivalent to Jim Crow regarding same-sex marriage.

If anything, there has begun Jim Crow against religious objectors to same-sex marriages.

Do you know of a baker who will not bake a cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony? No matter. Just go in, state very clearly that you want the baker to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, and then complain publicly as soon as he says no. Jimmy will take care of the rest. Maybe a judge will put him out of business or — better yet — someone will burn his business down. America will be improved by one less heterosexual bigot.

Never mind that the baker may have a family to feed and house. Never mind that he may have served you many times before, just not in this capacity. Never mind that you are free to go to another bakery. Never mind that you are free to open a bakery right next to him and post, “WE BAKE FOR SAME-SEX WEDDINGS,” all over your front window. Never mind that if you ever were to be in need, he probably would be one of the first to help.

This latter was the Jim Crow mentality. I had hoped that we would never see it again.