On Being a “Plain Member and Citizen”

Photo Credit: AlicePopkorn via Compfight cc

See Update below.

Tonight I am following up on the so-called “religious freedom” bill, House Bill 279, that was the subject of my last post. The news is sad, but not surprising. The Senate Judiciary Committee received the bill from the House, along with a proposed amendment that would have reined in its potential effects on civil rights protections such as the fairness ordinances in Louisville, Lexington, Covington, and Vicco. On a 9-2 vote, the committee voted to refer the bill as-is, without the amendment, to the Senate floor for a vote. The Senate will almost certainly approve the bill, and it will then go to Governor Steve Beshear for his signature. While the Governor’s spokesperson has stated that he will “weigh its impact” and its “unintended consequences,” the bill has enough votes in both chambers to override a veto, if he is even inclined to veto it. It is doubtful he will use a veto in this situation.

So the “religious freedom” bill will soon become the law of the state of Kentucky.

As the bill works its way towards the governor’s desk, I have two sets of somewhat related reflections.


Legislation like this engenders a lot of world-weary, told-you-so commentary from progressives. The line I have in mind is some permutation of the following: “Of course Kentucky, cheek by jowl with the deep South, voted to roll back civil rights protections for women and LGBTQ folk in the name of (conservative Christian) religion. It has a legislature dominated by rural white male Republicans. It is a red state with a few islands of blue, and its delegation in Washington reflects that. What else do you expect, really? Are we supposed to be shocked or surprised?” The clear implication is that, because the outcome was utterly predictable, speaking out about it as I did– as many others did– was a touching but futile gesture. It would have been more savvy to save that energy for what really counts– a potential court challenge to the bill. Or, better yet, escape Kentucky entirely, since there have to be more friendly places to live. Or just spend time doing something more enjoyable and productive. Anything, it seems, but engage in the quixotic spectacle of tilting at the windmill of entrenched conservative Christian privilege with little realistic hope of success.

I am sensitive to all of the above, because there would have been a time when I would have said or thought the same thing. That time, though, coincides with that part of my life in which I identified as straight. It is easy to be hard-nosed when it’s not your nose on the line. I still have it easier than a lot of folks– I am a white man with a lot of education, a parent, and a churchgoer, and all of those things help me. I can pull off a pretty good “normal” act. But this bill turns me into a target, and it turns women, people of color, and pretty much anyone else who conservative religion disfavors into a target as well.

In the face of that targeting, I feel like I have to speak out and make my objections known. I don’t have any specific reason to believe that writing blog posts, or sharing calls to action on Facebook or Twitter, or calling and e-mailing my legislators and the Kentucky House and Senate leadership, or getting all of my friends to do the same, are going to change the outcome. The constituency represented by organizations like The Family Foundation of Kentucky and the Ethics and Public Policy Center, both organizations that are implicated in “religious freedom” initiatives like these, have more sway here than people like me: more power and more funding to obfuscate, to misinform, to advance sophistic arguments that convince the privileged and powerful that they are really the ones who are threatened and need protection.

How, though, can I testify to the failure of consideration and of the democratic process this bill represents, if I stand haughtily above the whole process and say knowingly “I told you so” when the process fails? How is any of us supposed to have any idea how to speak up as citizens of a democracy, as human beings, if we don’t start trying to do it now? How is anyone supposed to know what it looks like if we don’t actually try to do it? It’s not as if waiting around on the sidelines for the planets to align properly and for everyone to commit to playing nice is such a shrewder political strategy. All that does is yield politics to the people who play it like a sport, and the sport they usually are playing is American football– violent, heteronormative, and a never-ending source of brain trauma. If we want to hang on to the notion that politics is a matter of how we manage our own co-existence, and that we all have a stake in how that happens, sitting on the sidelines is not an option. In fact, sitting on the sidelines is tacit support for the oppressor.

Of course, different individuals have different amounts of time and energy at their disposal; everyone has to live their life. Not everyone can man the barricades be in the thick of every struggle. But there is a difference between having limited time and energy and using time and energy to throw darts or yawn theatrically at those of us who are using our energy to speak out.


So far most commentary on House Bill 279 I have seen focuses on the threat it poses to civil rights protections for LGBTQ persons in Kentucky. This threat is real, but it is by no means the only one. In fact, I believe that this bill’s proponents would only view this threat as an unintended benefit. I believe that its real target is to give religious individuals and organizations free rein to discriminate against women on religious grounds. Craft-store giant Hobby Lobby recently lost a Supreme Court appeal in which it sought to defy, on explicitly religious grounds, a federal mandate to provide insurance that covers emergency contraceptives. Closer to home, Catholic hospital chains in Kentucky and elsewhere have clashed with state and federal governments over their desire to deny their employees (whether Catholic or not) access to contraception. This bill lends an additional shield for Kentucky organizations who would seek to impose their religious beliefs on their employees.

I can’t also help but think that some religious organizations would welcome an additional shield from being held liable for their internal cultures of abuse, exploitation, and oppression of women. A telling case in point: Louisville-based Sovereign Grace Ministries, an affiliation of conservative evangelical Christian congregations, is a defendant in a class-action lawsuit in Maryland brought by several plaintiffs who allege rampant abuse. At Religion Dispatches, T.F. Charlton devotes a must-read essay (seriously, go read it) to the case in which she ties the allegations compellingly to their thoroughly patriarchal “theology of submission” to unquestioned (male) authority. In practice, this culture of submission to male religious authority allegedly led church officials to shun responsible intervention by psychological professionals in favor of “pastoral counseling” and to block reporting of abuse to the appropriate authorities.

The Maryland lawsuit is just in its initial stages; the complaint was amended to add new allegations on January 11 of this year, and the defendants, including Sovereign Grace Ministries, have filed motions to dismiss. The fact that they have moved to dismiss is not especially remarkable– an initial motion to dismiss is standard fare in litigation, and the legal standard for granting them is typically rather high. What is remarkable, though, is that apparently it seeks to have the allegations dismissed on First Amendment grounds. I have not been able to locate a copy of SGM’s brief in support of its motion, but the second-hand reports I have been able to locate suggest that it seeks dismissal based on the alleged right of clergy to offer whatever pastoral advice they see fit without state interference.

While legally using the First Amendment to avoid obligations to report criminal conduct is a stretch, and morally it is breathtakingly shameless, it is hard not to hear an echo in it of the language of House Bill 279, with its concern with shielding “sincerely held religious belief” from being “burdened” in its exercise by the state. In both cases religious people get the right to deflect interference with their oppression and abuse of others by claiming to do it in the name of their religion. The relevant legal framework may differ from case to case, but the overall message is clear: in the balance of legally recognized rights, the push is on to expand the power of religious (i.e. Christian) people to define their rights outward.

I like to think that it doesn’t have to be like this; that we Christians might at last reconcile ourselves to the fact that we have no business running the world. Aldo Leopold, in A Sand County Almanac, describes his “land ethic” as involving a shift in humanity’s relationship to the land: “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” Something similar needs to happen in the human community. Christianity has not been a particularly good “plain member and citizen” of the world. I am not sure what it looks like for Christians to assume this more humble role, but it certainly doesn’t look like Christians carving out a privileged legal niche for themselves. What a far cry we are from Jesus, the critic of empire executed as a criminal by the Roman state!

UPDATE (March 7): I made two revisions/corrections to this post since initial publication.

1) I incorrectly identified Berea as a Kentucky city with a fairness ordinance and left out Covington, which does have one. Berea’s mayor has mandated a non-discrimination policy for city employees by executive order that includes sexual orientation, but it does not have a city ordinance.

2) A kind reader pointed out to me the sexism of the expression “man the barricades.” I acknowledge her point and have rephrased my point in a way that I hope avoids the sexist connotation that struggling for justice is an inherently male trait.

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