My husband Brad and I like to spend our holidays in the White Mountains of Arizona. There’s a small town called Show Low where we’ve passed many a merry Christmas. We’ve been regulars at the July 4th parades there, entertained friends and family over the years, and consider it our home away from home. But last year, it was very nearly going to be impossible for us to travel back to Arizona in good conscience. You see, at that time, Arizona was on the verge of passing a bill that would have made us feel entirely unwelcome.
The so-called "Religious Freedom Bill" would have allowed proprietors of establishments open to the public to refuse to serve customers if doing so would violate the “sincerely held” religious beliefs of the owner. On the surface, the proposed law seemed like a neutral way to protect the First Amendment rights of business owners.
But beneath that surface lurked a dangerous and divisive effect, granting hotels, bars and restaurants the right to refuse to serve LGBT persons and couples such as Brad and me, simply because our love did not comport with the religious views of the owners.
But thanks to pressures upon the governor's office in days before she was set to sign the law, and in the face of a boycott of the state by tourists and the NFL, which threatened to move the Super Bowl to Pasadena, Gov. Jan Brewer ultimately decided to veto the law. Tolerance and equality won out that day.
Although we faced and defeated that challenge, many similar fires began to rage across the nation. A similar law went into effect in Mississippi not long after, and another measure in Arkansas is about to slip quietly into place there. And just this past week, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana signed that state’s “Religious Freedom” bill, despite strong opposition from all manner of corporate citizens, religious leaders, and even athletic organizations, such as the NCAA.
Gov. Pence shamelessly pandered to the right wing of his party, perhaps because he is eyeing a run for the White House, or perhaps because he simply does not understand that bigotry, cloaked as religious protection, is still bigotry.
I myself am a Buddhist, not a Christian. But I cannot help but think that if Christ ran a public establishment, it would be open to all, and He would be the last to refuse service to anyone. It is, simply put, the most un-Christian of notions.
So let us be clear what this is really about: divisive politics. The far right has lost the war over marriage equality, and quickly. It now has staked out a new ground and shrouded itself ostensibly within the ambit of the First Amendment -- for who can deny that we ought to give religious freedom its full and fair due? It seeks refuge in the recent, and regrettable, U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Hobby Lobby, which appeared to open the door for exceptions to “government regulation” in the name of protecting religious beliefs.
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Taken too far, such laws carry with them the corrosive effect of intolerance, and they harken back to the days where people like Brad and I could not marry, not because of our gender, but because of our race. I was born in a time where such laws against the mixing of races were viewed as the natural extension of God’s will, and I know how powerfully oppressive and insidious they can be. Some fifty years ago, it was not so uncommon for interracial couples to be shunned and turned out.
We live in a pluralistic and civil society, where our social contract demands we sometimes relinquish individual liberties in the name of a more just and open society. This means that while we are all entitled to our religious beliefs, the extent and impact of those beliefs, and what we may impose because of them, stops at the tips of our noses. This also means we must learn to respect and, yes, even love our neighbors, despite our differences.
I cannot help but think of Pope Francis going out of the Vatican to wash the feet of non-believers, setting an example for us all: Our differences in beliefs do not truly separate us, or elevate us over others. Rather, they highlight the rich tapestry that is humanity.
The doors of a school or a restaurant or a business, held open to the public, must be open to all. The days are over where some may be denied a seat at the table simply because of who they are -- or in this case, whom they love. We cannot, and must not, march backward from where we have come.
George Takei is an actor, social justice activist, social media mega-power and star of the upcoming Broadway musical "Allegiance."