Ryan Lee: Once used to oppose integration, ‘religious liberty’ recycled to fight LGBT rights

“Family values” is a phrase we don’t often hear anymore. Long the battle cry for religious conservatives in their war against LGBT equality, those two words seem to have expired now that a growing majority of American families no longer share the same values as gay-bait- ing politicians and evangelical interest groups.

The mantra du jour is “religious liberty,” the duplicitous notion that LGBT people fighting against discrimination infringe on the spiritual expression of those whose god commands that they discriminate. “Religious liberty” is the coded bigotry that was used to push bills in Arizona, Georgia and elsewhere that would have allowed business owners to invoke their “sincerely held religious beliefs” to deny services to LGBT customers.

It is also the most recent tactic that was previously used to oppress other minority groups, now being recycled to stifle LGBT progress. In a damning piece for Politico Magazine, Dartmouth professor Randall Balmer recently traced the birth of the modern Religious Right not to Roe v. Wade, but rather to Brown v. Board of Education.

As generations of southern schoolchildren can attest, many communities responded to federally mandated integration by creating all-white private schools, which were usually incorporated as tax-exempt religious charities. Balmer chronicled how the IRS sought to revoke the tax breaks these “segregation academies” schemed to receive, which prompted social conservatives to whine about their religious liberties being attacked.

“In some states, it’s easier to open a massage parlor than a Christian school,” Balmer quotes Jerry Falwell as saying, before Falwell became an anti-gay icon and was still just a standard-issue racist hick.

Modern calls for “religious liberty” are little more than the echo of segregationists like Jerry Falwell and Bob Jones. It’s hard to come up with fresh ways to advocate stale intolerance.

One of the most sensitive elements of the LGBT movement is the extent to which it should be compared to earlier social justice struggles, most notably the African-American Civil Rights Movement. I believe there are significant differences between the Civil Rights.

Movement and the current push for LGBT equality, but there are many parallels, including a foundational similarity: a shared enemy.

As the “religious liberty” catchphrase reminds us, the leading opponents of LGBT rights are the philosophical descendants of those who opposed civil rights for blacks at every juncture of our nation’s history. Not only is the enemy the same, but so are the arguments—talking points that were used to oppose emancipation, integration and miscegenation have been dusted off to wage war against same-sex marriage, gay adoption and employment non-discrimination.

Unfortunately, both minority groups tend to overlook how the same enemy uses the same weapons to abuse either population. Worse, mainstream LGBT culture often abets white supremacy, while black Christians assume the reins of homophobia.

Right-wing leaders are desperate to prevent these two marginalized groups from recognizing their shared foe. For the last decade, anti- gay organizations have been recruiting—and compensating—black preachers to serve as the figureheads of their intolerant campaigns. It is a divisive technique employed by white evangelicals who have no other regard for African Americans or their civil rights, and who actively work against black interests in most other policy areas. Sadly, the mainstream LGBT movement is often equally uninterested in the ongoing struggle of blacks unless it can be used to advance our agenda, and we must become more reciprocal allies.

Our common legacy, and common opponent, offer a valuable lesson today: when losers of human rights struggles are allowed to define those battles, we get things like “states’ rights” to explain hundreds of years of human bondage and more than half a million dead American soldiers, and we get phrases like “religious liberty” to whitewash generations of LGBT individuals being persecuted and marginalized.