As the Supreme Court takes up marriage equality again, conservatives are preparing for a likely landmark ruling by trying to bring back a phrase that once haunted black families: “We don’t serve your kind here.”
Last week, my husband and I visited the US Postal Museum. In the exhibit, “Freedom Just Around the Corner:Black America From Civil War To Civil Rights,” I came across a copy of the 1966–67 edition of the Travelers’ Green Book International Edition, or the Negro Motorists’ Green Book, commonly called the “Green Book.” Published by New York City postal carrier James Petulla & Victor H. Green and his wife Alma from 1936 to 1966, the “Green Book” served — as an editorial in the 1956 edition explained — “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable.”
The “difficulties” and “embarrassments” black travelers faced included being refused food or accommodations by white-owned restaurants or hotels, white owned businesses that refused to serve them or repair their vehicles, threats of violence, and even whole “sundown towns” that were not safe for black travelers after dark. The “Green Book” was intended to help black travelers avoid facing violence or being told, “We don’t serve your kind here,” by directing them to establishments and businesses that would serve them.
My parents, both born in the 1930s, lived with those “difficulties” and “embarrassments.” In those days, black travelers often packed meals, and carried buckets or portable toilets, and even cans of gasoline in the trunks of their cars, in case they were barred from rest stops, or refused service at gas stations and restaurants. The last “Green Book” was published in 1966, two years after the Civil Rights Act made it obsolete, and three years before I was born. Yet, during my early childhood, my parents still prepared for road trips through rural Georgia much as they did in the era of the “Green Book.”
Then as now, religion was used to justify discrimination. Segregationist George Wallace invoked God dozens of times in his famous segregation speech, because white supremacy was an article of faith, due to the use of religion to justify white supremacy and the systems that enforced it. Slave owners turned to the Bible’s story of the “curse of Ham” (Genesis 9) to justify white supremacy and slavery, and verses like Ephesians 6:5 (“slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling”) or Titus 2:9 (“tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect”). Their descendants turned to biblical passages they believe condemned interracial marriage to justify segregation.
The far-right groups using “religious freedom” to justify discrimination are linked directly to those who used religion to justify segregation. On Easter Sunday 1960, Dr. Bob Jones, Sr. — founder of Bob Jones University — preached a sermon about biblical justification. R.J. Rushdoony, the father of the Christian Reconstructionism movement — which launched groups like Concerned Women For America, the Family Research Council, and the American family Association — wrote:
Segregation or separation is thus a basic principle of Biblical law with respect to religion and morality. Every attempt to destroy this principle is an effort to reduce society to its lowest common denominator. Toleration is the excuse under which this leveling is undertaken, but the concept of toleration conceals a radical intolerance. In the name of toleration, the believer is asked to associate on a common level of total acceptance with the atheist, the pervert, the criminal, and the adherents of other religions as though no differences existed.
I couldn’t help but think of Indiana’s “religious freedom” law, which gave businesses and private individuals a legal defense for denying services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision opened the floodgates for such laws.
Next week, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a marriage equality case that’s likely to knock down what’s left of the Defense of Marriage Act, potentially establishing marriage equality in all fifty states. The court took a major step in this direction when it overturned most of the Defense of Marriage Act, with a majority opinion that has since been cited in several federal court rulings overturning state bans on marriage equality. Justices Ginsburg and Thomas have both hinted that the court might finish the job this summer. On Monday, the Court refused to hear the National Organization for Marriage’s attempt to overturn a federal judge’s ruling allowing same-sex couples to marry in Oregon.
Conservatives are responding to the possibility that the Court will rule in favor of marriage equality with a wave of similar “religious freedom” laws. The “religious freedom” laws in Indiana and Arkansas were ultimately amended to prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination. North Carolina governor Pat McCrory has said that he will not sign his states “religious freedom.” Republicans in Georgia and Montana stopped halted their bills. However, Republican lawmakers in Alabama are advancing legislation that would allow judges and some state workers to opt out of services that violate their religious beliefs. Louisiana Republicans have introduce a bill that goes further than the Indiana law, by specifically allowing businesses and individuals to discriminate based on their religious beliefs about same sex marriage, and governor Bobby Jindal supports it.
Nineteen states passed religious freedom laws after President Bill Clinton signed the 1993 Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, which was intended to prevent governments from placing restrictions on freedom of religion. Today, opponents of marriage equality are using bastardized “religious freedom” to claim a religion-based right to discriminate, should the Court rule that equal protection under the law really does apply to everyone. Business owners have already announced that they will discriminate against LGBT people, under the protection of laws these laws.
By the time I was born, the “Green Book” ceased publication, and the legalized discrimination that made it necessary had begun to fade into history. My family never had to hear “We don’t serve your kind here,” and my parents were spared having to explain to me the reason why.
As I looked at the last edition of the “Green Book,” I wondered if America would need something like it again. I wondered if someday my family might have to hear, “We don’t serve your kind here,” and if we would have to explain to our children the reason why. In my heart, I don’t believe America would take such a giant step backwards. But conservatives are working to force us to do just that.