February 10, 2015 – The Des Moines Register
An open letter to Bob Vander Plaats:
You are human. I don’t say that in a patronizing manner or to be snarky. I write it really as a reminder to myself to always treat you with dignity and to not dehumanize you. You are human, should be treated with dignity and be assured of all the rights afforded anyone in this country, including the right to hold your personal religious beliefs as ensured by the First Amendment.
I am human, too, and can expect my dignity and rights to be protected as well. We both have rights around religious freedom, but our rights also encompass many other civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution and by law.
So does every person, including people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer (LBGTQ). All people deserve the basic commitment of dignity and respect, as well as equal rights and protections, just like you. Would you not agree, Bob?
As co-humans inhabiting this earth and living in this grand democracy, each person should be treated fairly and equally, especially under the law. One of the omissions inyour open letter to Rekha Basu (Feb. 8) was information regarding Iowa’s exemplary civil rights law. The long and the short is that, in Iowa, it is illegal to discriminate, even for personal religious freedom reasons.
Iowa’s civil rights law pays particular attention to 17 characteristics and categories that historically have an increased likelihood of people facing discrimination. Our state made the collective decision through the Iowa Civil Rights Act of 1965, amended in 2007, that employers, landlords, educators, creditors and, yes, business owners cannot pick and choose who gets served and who does not. A business or its owner, big or small, cannot put a big sign in their proverbial window and say “We do not serve gays!” Not for any reason, including personal religious freedom.
In general and under the Iowa civil rights law, there is no excuse for discrimination. Beyond the law, it is about basic human dignity. If you could strip away your own personal privilege as a white, straight, Christian man for a moment, put yourself in someone else’s shoes as they are refused service. You have spoken of the anguish of the business owner whose religious beliefs are challenged. Can you imagine the pain created by telling someone that they are not worthy to receive the service sought? Would you not agree by your faith, Bob, that no person should be treated as less than?
A business owner can hold their personal religious beliefs against people who are LGBTQ, they just can’t use that personal belief to justify discrimination.
If you remember, we have plenty of history with discrimination in this country, including much that is based on religious freedom. African-Americans, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Irish, Japanese, Latinos, women, different-raced couples all have been denied service at stores, bakeries, hotels, restaurants, clubs and other businesses, often justified by religious freedom. Essentially the argument goes “my” religious freedom trumps your right to be free and do business where you choose.
As Rekha points out, our world is ever evolving. To that I sincerely say, “Thank God!” If society didn’t evolve, many people would likely be in the same inequitable and humiliating place. Would you not agree that a society must evolve so that all people are treated with dignity and included in the protections of the law?
If we are committed as a society to protecting religious freedom and ensuring civil rights are guaranteed for generations to come, then we must safeguard every person’s rights with equal dignity and protection. Religious freedom includes your personal rights. However, your right to hold and express your religious beliefs should not ever cross the line where you can exert privilege and infringe on someone else’s religious or civil rights. Stating it clearly, your rights do not trump anyone else’s. Would you not agree?
CONNIE RYAN is executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org