Recently there has been much ado about states proposing legislation with the intent to “restore religious freedom.” Arizona is that latest to gain attention for such legislation, but they are not alone. Several states (Kansas, Utah, etc.) are engaging in this practice, including my own state of Ohio. “The language of Arizona’s law allows exemptions from requirements that “substantially burden” an individual’s exercise of religion–something that could allow almost any kind of discrimination as long as it is based on sincere religious beliefs.” (http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/religious-freedom-or-discrimination)
As the parent of a child with a disability, this language is precisely what scares me. Persons with disabilities and mental illness, and their advocates, have worked very hard over many years seeking full inclusion in all facets of society. They have had to fight to overcome stigma and stereotypes. They have had to lobby for the ADA, and special education and coverage under health insurance.
The passage of Religious Freedom Laws will not just protect religious conservatives feeling forced to interact with LGBT persons. Such laws also place the equality and inclusion of persons with disabilities and mental illness at risk, opening the door for discrimination to once again openly exist. If you believe that serving, hiring or educating a person with a disability is against your religion, then you are exempt from the requirements of disability laws.
Consider the history of people of faith when it comes to persons with disabilities. Biblical texts have been used to stigmatize persons with disabilities. These texts have also informed the way some have practiced the Christian faith as well, so that persons with disabilities have been viewed as cursed by God, as a punishment for sin, and persons to be avoided and excluded from the faith community.
Leviticus 21:18-20 For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, 19 or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, 20 or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles.
Deuteronomy 28:27-28 The LORD will afflict you with the boils of Egypt, with ulcers, scurvy, and itch, of which you cannot be healed. 28 The LORD will afflict you with madness, blindness, and confusion of mind…
Deuteronomy 28:59 then the LORD will overwhelm both you and your offspring with severe and lasting afflictions and grievous and lasting maladies.
Luke 9:38-42 Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39 Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40 I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” 42 While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.
Luke 13:11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.
Mark 9:17-20 Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” 19 He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.
These texts have been understood and informed faith in hurtful ways, leading “Christians” to not only stigmatize, but persecute persons with mental illness and disabilities. History has seen the marginalization of persons with disabilities in the ancient Near East to persecution of persons in the Puritan communities (remember the “witches”), to eugenics under Nazi Germany and removing persons from society through institutionalization in the 20th century United States.
So, under these laws:
- IF a person’s faith is founded on reading the Bible literally (as fundamentalist and conservative Christians are proud of claiming)
- and IF that person claims that they believe the Bible as inerrant,
- THEN that person might also (even in the 21st century) claim that persons with disabilities are cursed or possessed
- Therefore they might believe their religion prohibits them from touching, serving or even being in the presence of persons with disabilities or mental illness
- AND therefore they could claim that following the ADA, etc. would substantially burden them, from which they would be EXEMPT based on sincere religious beliefs!
Granted, many in Christianity have done some VERY GOOD theological work around understanding disabilities and mental illness in ways that include instead of exclude. But that work is ongoing in a culture and society which still promotes ability and “accommodates” disability and in which “normal” is still the dominant ideology.
We have come too far to go back in time. We do not need laws which pave the way to undue the progress we have made to provide persons with disabilities and mental illness equal access to services, buildings and better lives. We certainly do not need to legislate “religious freedom” laws which reopen the doors of discrimination. And we should speak out against the passage of such laws when they are proposed.
My voice may not carry weight in Arizona, but I will certainly raise it in Ohio.
Will you raise yours?