Is “Religious Liberty” The New “Tough on Crime?”

I’m not mad, just disappointed.

Yesterday, the North Carolina legislature passed House Bill 2 in a special session. The bill overrides city ordinances on everything from the minimum wage to employee protections, establishing a state standard. But many are up in arms over two other aspects of the bill: its elimination of protection for the LGBT community in hiring and employment and its prevention of transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice in schools. Before its passing, some Republican legislators called it a “commerce bill,” but it‘s much more than that. According to Senate Democratic leader Dan Blue, “this bill essentially repeals 50 years of non-discrimination efforts and gives lawmakers in Raleigh unprecedented control over our city and local governments. ” House Bill 2 was a discriminatory power grab by the North Carolina state government. Unfortunately, this kind of policy is all too common recently; Houston saw protections for the LGBT community removed last year in a referendum on the “bathroom bill.” Opposition to LGBT protection will likely continue on the far right, especially because of a newly popular term in the Republican Party’s rhetoric: “religious liberty.”

As evidenced by this chart from FiveThirtyEight, “religious liberty” has quickly rose to prominence in Republican discourse, sparked by the Supreme Court Obergefell verdict that made bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. After all, “gay marriage” would not be a very useful talking point after gay marriage was settled in court. This new term reminded me of something I learned about recently in a sociology course at UNC: the origins of the phrase “tough on crime.”

Like “religious liberty,” the term “tough on crime” is coded language, the former for “anti-LGBT” and the latter for “anti-black.” Both arise from similar circumstances: a legal decision/federal mandate. In the case of “religious liberty,” it was the Obergefell verdict; for “tough on crime,” it was the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

According to Michele Alexander, the foundation for “tough on crime” policies was laid by Barry Goldwater and other segregationists in the 1960’s. They, along with many whites, were appalled and shocked by the protests and violence of the Civil Rights movement. They desperately wanted “law and order” in their communities, meaning that they wanted protests to end and for blacks to remain second-class citizens in the US. However, they did not get their wish, as the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, outlawing discrimination based on race. This changed the discourse among segregationists; now, it was not acceptable for them to be explicitly racist in their speeches and policies. They had to find a new way to accomplish their goal of keeping blacks subjugated. They found their answer in coded rhetoric; they were now going to be “tough on crime” instead of “for segregation.” The new rhetoric worked, as this coded language eventually led to racially coded policies like the War on Drugs and the issues of mass incarceration and police brutality that we see today. The “crime” in “tough on crime” really didn’t mean crime; it meant African-Americans. This was especially true for the War on Drugs, the main “colorblind” policy with racial undertones. Crack became the focus of the War on Drugs, leading to a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. This implicitly targeted blacks, as they were much more likely to use crack (while whites were more likely to use powder cocaine). Furthermore, the rates of drug use and sale are extremely similar across all racial groups, yet blacks have been sent to prison on drug charges at a much higher rate than whites. This has led to the development of a new racial caste system in America, similar to Jim Crow and slavery.

Similarly, “religious liberty” isn’t about religious liberty at all. If it was, Ted Cruz wouldn’t be calling for mass surveillance in Muslim neighborhoods. Instead, it’s a new term for advocating discrimination against the LGBT community. Just as “tough on crime” advocates made “welfare queens” the enemy and “gangbangers” boogeymen, “religious liberty” supporters are using fear to drive support for discriminatory policies; in this case, it’s the fear that sexual predators would use the ability to choose one’s restroom to spy on/assault members of the opposite sex. This is the main reason why the “bathroom bill” didn’t pass in Houston, even though there is no evidence that similar bills have led to assaults in any of the 17 states that currently have anti-discrimination laws. It also seems to be the reason why HB2 passed in North Carolina.

After HB2 passed, a new hashtag gained prominence on Twitter: #WeAreNotThis. Major corporations, including American Airlines, Dow, and PayPal, have also spoken out against the bill. Hopefully, widespread opposition to discriminatory policies like the ones in HB2 can rise up and fight for equal protection for all. Unfortunately, it seems as though only one side is “Not This;” as long as the Republican Party keeps fighting for “religious liberty,” laws like HB2 will continue to have public support. We need to learn our lesson from the War on Drugs and recognize the harmful intentions behind coded rhetoric and fight against it from the start. If we do not, laws like HB2 will become all the more common. And, in my opinion, that’s an absolute travesty.

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