Several weeks ago our local newspaper ran a front-page story about the efforts of Gordon Denlinger, a Lancaster County state representative, to introduce a state constitutional amendment he calls “The Freedom of Conscience Amendment.” As reported by the newspaper, “The proposed amendment would ensure that the beliefs held by private business owners exempts them from anti-discrimination laws pertaining to employment, housing or service based on race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, education or disability.”
Denlinger gave as an example of how the amendment could be implemented: “An elderly woman has an apartment she wants to rent out. If the lifestyle arrangements of the applicant were not in line with her beliefs, she would be able to deny him a lease for that reason.” What Denlinger appears to be saying is that if his hypothetical “elderly woman” believes that inter-racial marriage is wrong, or that Jews or Hispanics maintain a “lifestyle” with which she disagrees, she may ignore the anti-discrimination laws now in force in Pennsylvania.
In response, I sent a letter to the paper, an edited version of which appeared on January 24. A number of editorial comments and other letters took a position similar to mine. Sadly, there have also been letters from people thanking Denlinger for his move to “protect Christians from persecution.” The weekly People Poll, an unscientific call-in poll published by the newspaper, indicated that 68% of respondents opposed the amendment, while 32% supported it. An expanded version of my letter follows:
To the Editor:
Last week our nation marked the 50th anniversary of the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins, significant actions in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. Yesterday the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the greatest leaders of that struggle, were celebrated across the country. Today (January 21, 2014) the Lancaster News has given front-page coverage to Rep. Gordon Denlinger’s effort to roll back all the gains made since that time.
Denlinger wants to privilege “sincerely held beliefs” over the anti-discrimination laws which now govern public accommodation. Theologian Rachel Held Evans, in a recent blog post, provided examples of “sincerely held [Christian] beliefs,” which have supported discriminatory behavior in the past. Two of these are especially relevant to Denlinger’s efforts.
In 1960, in a tract titled “Is Segregation Scriptural?” Bob Jones Sr. wrote in opposition to integration: “Wherever we have the races mixed up in large numbers, we have trouble….These religious liberals are the worst infidels in many ways in the country; and some of them are filling pulpits down South. They do not believe the Bible any longer; so it does not do any good to quote it to them. They have gone over to modernism, and they are leading the white people astray at the same time; and they are leading colored Christians astray. But every good, substantial, Bible-believing, intelligent orthodox Christian can read what the Word of God and know that what is happening in the South now is not of God.”
In 1982, in defense of Bob Jones University’s policy banning inter-racial dating and marriage, Bob Jones III stated: “The Bible clearly teaches, starting in the tenth chapter of Genesis and going all the way through, that God has put differences among people on the earth to keep the earth divided.” Rep. Denlinger’s official biography states that he is a 1985 graduate of Bob Jones University. It appears that, along with his Accounting Degree, he absorbed the segregationist views of his Alma Mater’s leaders.
No law prevents U.S. citizens from holding discriminatory beliefs, nor from expressing them publicly. What we may not do is act on those beliefs in such a way that others are denied rights or services. Denlinger proposes to grasp the arc of the Moral Universe about which Dr. King spoke so eloquently and bend it back toward injustice. This must not be allowed to happen.