Regarding the Orlando Massacre, there’s plenty to be mad about

Photo by Jenna Michele Photography
Photo by Jenna Michele Photography

It has been two and a half days.

By now we know that in the early morning hours of June 12th, 2016, a crazed, Islamist extremist took a small arsenal of legally obtained weapons in to a nightclub frequented by the LGBTQ community in Orlando, and then proceeded to murder 49 people and wound 53 more.

Now that the initial shock and horror of that atrocity has started to subside, with the smoke barely settled, people are starting to retreat in to their sadly predictable factions.

Liberals are blaming gun culture in the United States.  A culture that makes possible with obscene ease, the purchase of weapons of mass destruction (unless of course we decide that killing 49 people does not qualify as “mass” destruction). A gun culture that is a fact of American life. A gun culture which makes massacres like Orlando (and Charleston, and San Bernardino, and Sandy Hook, and Virginia Tech, and Aurora, and Columbine, etc.) so “easy” to pull off. The liberals don’t mention Islamist extremism.

Conservatives are blaming Islam. In fact, the presumptive presidential nominee for the Republican Party, Donald Trump, is once again calling on the United States to ban all Muslims from entering the country (never mind that the killer in Orlando was born in New York). The conservatives don’t mention guns.

The reality of course is that this most recent and most deadly atrocity was about homophobic bigotry, fueled by Islamist extremism, and made possible by guns.

There are clearly multiple variables at play. By focusing only on the variable that validates our political narrative, not only are we are dishonoring the lives stolen by this kind of hatred and violence, but we are leaving the door wide open for the next attack. We are being pitifully myopic.  If we only attack guns, extremists will use bombs or knives or whatever tools they can find to main and kill others. In the case of Islamist extremism, if we vilify all Muslims, the extremists among them will simply use anti-Muslim bigotry and xenophobia as tools for recruitment and convenient excuses for more extremism. We clearly have to talk seriously about both the obscenely easy access we have to the tools of murder as well as the perversion of certain religious ideologies that inspire murderous behaviors.

Here is what must happen:

We have to better control the proliferation of weapons designed to kill. As a simple start, people who are deemed too dangerous to board a plane, should also be deemed too dangerous to purchase a gun.

We have to eradicate Islamist extremism. Preferably by convincing adherents that their extremist interpretation of Islam is morally bankrupt to the degree that they begin to once again place value on human well-being; but by force if they insist on violence against others.

Both of these actions are going to take time, so what can we do now? We can ensure that all people are treated with the same dignity and respect expected within a free and open society, particularly people such as those in the LGBTQ community, who are consistently targeted for derision by those who think their holy texts, irrespective of the religion, compel them to denigrate LGBTQ people as unworthy, sinful and broken.  For example, Christian politicians in the United States don’t get to “pray for Orlando” in one breath, and in the next, make the lives of LGBTQ people who aren’t being laid to rest, miserable by restricting their restrooms or the marriages or their adoptions or whatever else they can find that helps them discriminate in the name of “Biblical” or “family” values.

Fundamentally, we have to champion and promote the “liberal” in the classical sense and secular values that make pluralistic societies work. These are the values that erode the walls between factions. We have to promote across the globe, freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of conscious, freedom of ideas, freedom from tyranny, and the rule of law.

If history is any guide, understanding that our problems are more complicated than any one faction would have you believe will take time. So in the meantime, consider a contribution of financial support to the victims now.

Support Victims of Pulse Shooting

We all will make a difference. We have to.

Letter to the Editor: Marietta Daily Journal – So-called ‘religious liberty’ bill bad for people, progress

no-discrimination-georgiaDuring the last few days of the 2016 session of the Georgia General Assembly, an eleventh hour push by certain lawmakers was successful in getting a “religious liberty” bill, H.B. 757, passed by both houses. This is a recurring theme with a handful of Georgia legislators, primarily State Senator Josh McKoon (R-Columbus), Representative Sam Teasley (R-Marietta), and State Senator Greg Kirk (R-Americus).  Under the guise of “religious freedom” the controversial bill would have protected faith-based organizations who receive state funding (another issue altogether), from lawsuits should people in those organizations decide to turn away taxpayers who in some facet of their lives, are living in “sin” (i.e., anyone in the LGBT community). In addition to contacting the Governor’s office, I penned a quick Letter to the Editor encouraging Governor Nathan Deal to veto the bill. The following letter was published on March 28, 2016, the same day the Governor announced he would indeed veto the legislation.

DEAR EDITOR:

Any law that lets public accommodations legally discriminate against a person seeking their services, based on some arbitrary characteristic of that person, is reprehensible. It’s a colossal step backward and Georgia is better than this. Let’s hope for the sake of progress and of doing what’s right for our friends and loved ones; not to mention protecting our growing reputation as an inclusive and welcoming business destination, Governor Deal vetoes this divisive piece of legislation.

Ryan Bays

Letter to the Editor: Marietta Daily Journal – Despite Hines, equality under the law will prevail — even for gays

What follows is a letter I wrote to the editors of my local newspaper in response to this column from Roger Hines, Why not tailored laws for everybody?  I left it to the editorial staff to title my letter and am not displeased that this is the message they took away. Equality under the law will prevail.

DEAR EDITOR:

I hesitated before writing this letter in response to Roger Hines’ column, “Why not tailored laws for everybody?” because a part of me just wants tired, desperate, and homophobic opinions like his to stay hidden away where they typically reside; in the dark recesses of old frightened minds. My trepidation was that by bringing it up again, I may inadvertently goad these ideas back in to the light of day. But perhaps that’s what we need. For the extinction of this unsightly beast called bigotry can only be brought about by its relentless exposure to the light of reason.

You see, this single statement in Roger’s column, “The homosexual lobby and their sycophant corporations don’t want me to live according to my beliefs, but according to theirs,” provides more than enough context to expose the absurdity of his argument. It’s typical of the warped rationale that takes place in the minds of anyone who has convinced themselves that extending equal rights to others different than them, will somehow diminish their own well-being.

How does someone’s respect for diversity and their desire for all people to be treated equally with dignity and respect, keep another person from believing whatever it is that person wants to believe? It doesn’t. So as is often the case where a certain segment of society has vilified another segment based on some characteristic they fear, the argument makes no rational sense.

Roger quoted Thomas Jefferson’s 1809 letter to the Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church as a means to insinuate that Jefferson would have supported his position. But he needs to take a closer look. Jefferson said, “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of civil authority.” Conscience. This is the realm of ideas, not actions. When marriage equality is extended to all members of society who are legally able to enter in to contracts, Roger’s “conscience” will remain intact. No government intervention will force him to change his mind about what he believes is true, nor will Roger be punished by the government for expressing those beliefs.

And please, before you even go there, don’t confuse “beliefs” with “actions.” The rights to hold beliefs and to freely express ideas are protected, as they most certainly should be. Actions however, no matter what belief may have inspired them, are well within the purview of civil authority. On this subject, Jefferson was also unequivocally clear. He explained as much in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association when he said, “…the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions.”

And while we’re in the business of invoking the sagacious Jefferson, his 1816 letter to John Adams provides perhaps the most salient sentiment given the times. “Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both. We are destined to be a barrier against the returns of ignorance and barbarism.”

Some beliefs will remain intact. Some people will change their minds. The world will turn. But let the reasonable among us deliver the antidotes. Equality under the law will prevail, eventually, as it always has in our great nation.

-Ryan Bays

Georgia’s RFRA and the discrimination agenda

Of all the “hot-button” issues bandied about during the 2015 session of the Georgia General Assembly – from legalizing medical marijuana to limiting driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants – few garnered more attention than SB 129, the introduction of a state version of the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA). How, when placed alongside issues that had immediate and tangible impacts for Georgians, namely to their health and to their ability to participate in the economy, is it that the somewhat nebulous and esoteric RFRA grabbed the national spotlight?

The simple and not so simple answer can be found by sifting through the great big woodpile of conjecture about what might or might not happen were RFRA to become law.

According to proponents of the law, nothing of any real consequence will happen.

According to opponents of the law, those who wish to discriminate against others will be allowed to do so if their excuse is their religion.

You see, the recent debate around RFRA legislation in states like Indiana and Georgia, was couched in terms of needing to “protect” certain people, specifically those people who practice a religion (as defined by people practicing it), from government encroachment. The proponents make a grand religious liberty argument that on its face seems perfectly reasonable. Given our nation’s great historical and constitutional commitments to the ideal of respecting personal freedoms, if not its checkered application of said commitments, it would seem that RFRA should be a fairly straightforward and innocuous piece of legislation. In fact, it might be fair for one who understands that the free exercise of religion is a right expressly protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, to ask the question, “What’s the point?”

Ahh yes, the point. The point it seems, is buried somewhere on the continuum between letting individuals do whatever they want to do and society, by way of enacting and enforcing laws, deciding what constitutes the greater good. And it is a point that has historically been a moving target on the continuum. The other point of complication is that this continuum is wrapped up in that interesting tangle of American jurisprudence that we call, “federalism.” And all of this gets ferreted out, for better or worse, but the judicial branch of government.

So which way is it?

Is RFRA, as Representative Sam Teasely (R – Marietta), the sponsor of the measure in the Georgia House told me in a Facebook conversation, really just a law meant to restore the religious protection that folks once enjoyed, or is it the beginning of another ugly chapter in American history where folks use certain interpretations of their particular religious texts as license to mistreat others?

First, let’s take a look at those religious protections that RFRA is meant to “restore” by reviewing a brief history of religious protection in the United States. The judicial branch has been weighing issues of personal liberty versus the greater good of the rule of law since the beginning of the republic. Perhaps most famously regarding religious liberty, the Supreme Court decided against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1878 case, Reynolds v United States. The Mormon Church felt that US anti-bigamy laws infringed on their member’s free exercise of religion, in this case, the “religious duty” for a Mormon man to be married to more than one Mormon woman. The Supreme Court decided unanimously against the Church and cited, among other historical documents, Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association where Jefferson drew a distinction between what one believes and between what actions one takes that are inspired by his beliefs, when he wrote that,

“…religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions.”

The Court went on to punctuate the significance of Jefferson’s letter by writing in the majority opinion,

“Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader (Jefferson) of the advocates of the measure, it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured. Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere opinion, but was left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order…Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious beliefs and opinions, they may with practices.”

The courts were fairly consistent in their application of the distinction between “belief” and “action inspired by belief” with regards to the free exercise of religion; that is until the 1960’s when the very active Warren Court, in the case of Sherbert v Verner, introduced the idea of the “compelling government interest.” The essential effect of this new test was to place a greater burden on the government to justify intervention in cases where religion and law conflicted. In other words, after Sherber v Verner, the government had to apply a kind of “strict scrutiny” to indicate that the subject at hand was truly a matter of crucial importance to society, as opposed to something that might simply be preferred.

As is sometimes the case on matters of social acceptance, the pendulum swung the other direction again under the Rehnquist Court, with the Court’s 1990 ruling in the case of Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v Smith. In this case, the defendants were members of the Native American Church; a religious practice of which was the consumption of a Schedule I controlled substance called peyote. The defendants were fired for using peyote but being members of the Native American Church, claimed that their religion exempted them from laws prohibiting peyote use. The Court disagreed and held that Oregon’s law was a “neutral law of general applicability,” which meant that it was not a law intended to target one group over another, but rather it was meant to apply to everyone in Oregon. The majority decision went on to state, quite correctly, that,

“To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

The decision, with the majority opinion written by conservative Justice Anton Scalia, was met with disdain, largely from the left side of the political spectrum. In response, liberals in Congress drafted and President Bill Clinton subsequently signed in to law, the first Religious Freedom and Restoration Act in 1993. This law effectively reinstated the Warren Court’s “compelling interest” and “strict scrutiny” tests from the 1960s. A few years later in 1997, the Supreme Court ruled in City of Boerne v Flores, that Congress’s 14th amendment enforcement powers, and thus the federal RFRA, did not extend to cases where state law was being challenged by someone invoking a religious motivation for exemption from existing law and as a result, several states quickly adopted their own versions of the RFRA. So when politicians like Sam Teasley suggest that RFRA is just meant to restore things to the way they used to be, does he mean the way things used to be before 1963? Doubtful.

So here we are, 18 years since the Supreme Court ruled that the federal RFRA doesn’t apply to state claims, and peculiarly the political winds have shifted 180 degrees from those that blew in response to Employment Division vs. Smith in 1993. For 18 years, states have passed RFRAs in dribs and drabs. Now suddenly conservative Christian politicians principally motivated by their own evangelical agendas, are scrambling to take up the RFRA mantle. But why now? What has changed in American culture that has prompted those from the fringes of the overwhelming majority religion in the United States, 78.5% of all Americans according to the PewResearch Religion and Public Life Project, to proclaim their need for protection from government overreach?

As the LGBT community slowly climbs their way to greater acceptance and equal treatment in society, these fringe RFRA champions, the shrill subset of the 78.5%, want to use their religion as a foundation from which to justify discrimination. Their goal is to whip conservatives in to a frenzy of fear and paranoia that somehow without a state RFRA, state and local governments might *gasp* actually make them treat gay people like fellow human beings.

Conservative news feeds pump out a steady flow of incendiary stories about mom and pop bakers and hapless wedding photographers getting fined for violating local anti-discrimination ordinances when they refuse to serve LGBT customers. Each of these stories is peppered with ridiculous made-up words like “homofascist” and is accompanied by a religious persecution complex that would make the Jim Crow South proud. The rationale goes something like this, “My narrow interpretation of some text x means that I should not have to follow the laws the rest of you follow. And if you make me follow them, you are trampling on my religious liberty.” This is of course, nonsense. One can maintain whatever religious ideas one feels like maintaining, as long as those ideas do not lead to behaviors that adversely impact others.

And before one scoffs at that assessment, Senator Josh McKoon, (R – Columbus), the author of SB 129, called an amendment that would have expressly prohibited using the RFRA to discriminate, a “poison pill amendment on Georgia RFRA.” The House Judiciary Committee’s vice chair, Barry Fleming, (R-Harlem) said that the amendment “will gut this bill.” When language explicitly prohibiting discrimination is a “poison pill” that will “gut” the bill, then for what purpose exactly was the bill intended?

When I asked Senator McKoon if he could guarantee that RFRA will not be used to discriminate in the future, rather than answer with a Yes or No, he deflected and said he was “confident that the prior interpretation which hasn’t allowed discrimination will continue.” Confident? Why?  When CNN’s Gary Tuchman did a story about what RFRA might mean to some Georgians, he interviewed several florists in South Georgia who admitted on national television that they would not serve openly gay people. One said “I would respectfully tell them that I’m sorry – that I just don’t want to do it because of my beliefs.” Ironically, these same florists had no compunction with delivering flowers to someone who might be getting remarried – and thus committing the sin of adultery as defined in the Bible, which incidentally is a sin expressly prohibited by the Ten Commandments. For some reason being gay is a “different kind of sin” according to one flower shop employee. With so many players in this game of homophobic mental gymnastics, being “confident” that discrimination will happen just doesn’t cut it.

Lawmakers such as Senator McKoon and Representative Teasley have a choice. If the current legislation is not about discrimination, then they should learn from Indiana’s painful example, avoid corporate boycotts and international embarrassment, and explicitly ensure that it’s not about discrimination.  Until then, those who are interested in equality remain highly dubious of the intentions of a few fringe anti-gay evangelicals in elected office.

Thus here we are, full-circle, back to Employment Division v Oregon. Do we think that a person’s religious beliefs give them the right to break the law, to deny services to others, to dictate the behaviors of others, to control the healthcare of others, or to harm others? Do we really believe that one’s magical ideas about a drug for example, suddenly make the drug’s adverse health effects disappear? Peyote is either an illegal drug for good reasons or it’s not and should be available to all. If the baker, the photographer, and the florist are going to offer their goods and services to the general public, then the general public is who they offer them to; they don’t get to refuse service to an arbitrary sub-set of the general public based on some personal interpretation of a snippet of text that they have been led to believe is more important than the well-being of real people. Religious beliefs do not confer special dispensation from the rules the rest of society has agreed to follow. Beliefs remain intact without RFRA. Actions however must comport to the law of the land. As Jefferson said, “the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions.” Bigoted opinions while repulsive, are protected. Bigoted actions are not.

The sagacious Jefferson again speaks to us from the past,

“Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both. We are destined to be a barrier against the returns of ignorance and barbarism.”