When reactionary forces in society fight progress by clinging to the status quo, they often scramble for whatever argument will legitimize their claim. In the civil rights movement of the 1960s, white Southerners invoked the rights of the states and the Constitution’s emphasis on decentralization in order to continue carrying out racist policies. Even as late as 2010, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) stated that the federal government has no right ordering a private store owner to desegregate his or her establishment.
To most of us, this is a thin veil to hide true intentions — namely, that racist, sexist, homophobic and bigoted groups and individuals simply don’t want others to share equal rights. By the ’60s, it was no longer culturally acceptable to stand in front of a national audience and claim that blacks were racially inferior to whites. So quoting the Founding Fathers created a debate that distracted from the real issue.
The fight for LGBT rights runs into similar hurdles with equality. But an incident in Illinois recently highlighted the continued struggle that many LGBT couples face even when the law is behind them.
On June 22, ABC 7 Chicago reported that the owners of the University Club in downtown Moline refused to hold the wedding reception of a lesbian couple. Club manager Kristen Stewart cited the Bible, saying that, “Because marriage is a covenant that God created for man and woman, then, as a biblical Christian, I cannot help them enter into or celebrate that sin.”
Unlike Alabama or Mississippi in the ’60s, Illinois has laws in place to protect minority groups. The state is one that actually bans discrimination based on sexual orientation, which could certainly be applied to this situation. Illinois also legalized civil unions last year — and while this is not full marriage equality, it is a step that would legitimize the need for a wedding reception.
Stewart’s husband, the club’s owner, later said his wife “misspoke” and that the club does not ban gay marriage celebrations. That may save him from a lawsuit, but its doubtful any other LGBT couples will be clamoring to book a party at the club.
Luckily for LGBT citizens in Illinois, our state protects minorities. But unfortunately, only 20 other states plus the District of Columbia do so. In the remainder — the majority — it would have been perfectly legal for a club to refuse a gay marriage reception.
This underscores the need for federal action banning discrimination. A look back to the civil rights movement proves this to be true. Even while the vast majority of the nation desegregated schools, buses and lunch counters, states in the conservative South clung to ingrained bigotry. If the federal government had not stepped in, it’s possible that blacks in the South would have continued to face institutionalized discrimination for decades to come.
Without federal action, some states — not so coincidentally, many of the same ones that refused to desegregate in the ’60s — will never give gays and lesbians equal rights. Can anyone imagine Texas enacting a ban on same-sex discrimination without an order from Washington?
Yes, our Constitution was set up so that states held more power to keep federal dictates from infringing on regional cultures. The idea that matters are better settled locally certainly has some merit — what works in Chicago or New York isn’t necessarily what’s best for South Carolina or Georgia.
But this isn’t an issue of how best to spend tax money or what curriculum to teach in schools. It’s an issue of human rights; and the Constitution protects basic human rights. When private establishments are allowed to discriminate — whether based off of sexual orientation, skin color or religion — it sends a message to society that this behavior is acceptable and sanctioned by the government.
Anti-discrimination laws aren’t just for couples seeking to get married in whatever establishment they choose. As a libertarian would point, the markets can decide if a private establishment is making the right choices — and clearly LGBT couples will boycott Moline’s University Club.
The real issue is that allowing private enterprises to refuse service to certain groups of citizens sends the message to society that somehow this group is “wrong.” The harm falls hardest on LGBT youths, who have to deal with discrimination from their fellow students who are showed by adults that this behavior is acceptable. This only perpetuates the cycle of non-acceptance — as I’ve argued before, children are not born homophobic; they learn it.
Instead, the federal government should promote equality for all citizens. Could you imagine today traveling to Birmingham, Ala. and seeing racial separation on public transit? Without orders from Washington, that could have been a reality.