NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When Tennessee lawmakers approved making the Bible the state book, Kira Marshall could only shrug. She was chagrined, yes — surprised, no.
Faced with a changing state, a changing nation — men can marry men, and women can marry women — Tennessee lawmakers decided to make a stand, she said.
“They feel that all this is an attack on their assumptions,” said Marshall, 29, a store clerk taking a recent lunch break in downtown Nashville. “This negates the separation of the church and state.”
The governor, a conservative Republican, agreed with the store clerk. Bill Haslam last week vetoed the bill.
The issue effectively died when lawmakers couldn’t muster a simple majority of votes to overturn his veto.
A victory for common sense or the latest chapter in America’s accelerating descent into the moral abyss? That debate isn’t limited to Tennessee, or to Bibles.
Across the country — the South in particular — a wave of bills, proposals and court fights in recent months is again ramping up the culture wars. The measures come in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage, a decision many religious conservatives see as an assault on their beliefs.
The legislation may underscore Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations, too. The Republican front-runner has won wide support from religious conservatives worried about a nation loosed from its moral moorings.
In Georgia, lawmakers recently passed a “religious liberty” bill, despite critics who argued that the measure was discriminatory. Supporters seethed as Republican Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed it. They did not go away quietly: On a rainy Friday, hundreds gathered outside the Capitol to sing hymns and cheer for their Christian beliefs.
Back in Tennessee, Haslam signed a bill Wednesday that allows therapists and counselors with “sincerely held principles” to reject gay, lesbian, transgender and other clients.
And bathrooms — a flash point in the civil rights era when they were segregated for blacks and whites — have again taken on significance in the latest struggle.
In March, North Carolina legislators convened for one day to pass a bill decreeing single-sex-occupancy bathrooms — a move to supersede a Charlotte ordinance that allowed transgender people to choose what bathrooms to use. Business, show business and sports figures have come out against the new law; supporters have rallied for it.
Massachusetts, Washington, Kentucky, Kansas: More than a dozen legislatures are dealing with “bathroom bills” or similar measures that go to the heart of our most private beliefs and practices. The bills’ wording may vary, say observers, but their intent does not.
The courts are beginning to weigh in, too. In Virginia, a federal appeals court sided with a transgender teen in a battle against his school board, saying he has a right to use the boys’ bathroom. That decision could have implications for North Carolina’s bathroom law.
The U.S. census, America’s once-a-decade accounting of itself, shows how our nation is changing.
Six years ago, more than 640,000 households were same-sex. Of that number, more than 130,000 listed themselves as married. California led the pack with 28,000-plus households; Georgia accounted for just over 3,600. The numbers have not declined since then.
The Williams Institute, a UCLA think tank that studies sexual-orientation issues, adds another number: 9 million. That’s the estimated population of Americans in 2010 who identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The institute based its findings on national and state population surveys. That figure is roughly 3 percent of the total U.S. population for the same year.
That could help explain the spate of recent legislation across the country aimed at bathrooms, said Chase Strangio, a staff attorney for the national American Civil Liberties Union. Often the new laws are proposed in states with some of the lowest numbers of lesbian, gay and transgender people. Lawmakers, Strangio said, are uneasy with people dissimilar to themselves. The bills, he added, are a “solution looking for a problem.”
“They’re using their ignorance to say, ‘We are uncomfortable with these people,’” Strangio said.
What makes this latest conflict remarkable is its scope. Never has the ACLU dealt with so many legislative cases at once, Strangio said. Many have a common denominator, he said. “The subtext has been religion in many of these states,” he said.
The bills highlight a conflict between old and new, between long-held values and people who represent a threat to them, said Ferrell Guillory, who heads the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Southern legislatures, he said, have become progressively more conservative, a trend that began in the Reagan era. “Now that they have the power, they’re using their moment to enact their values, their religious values, in the political arena,” he said.
Hundreds showed up April 22 in Atlanta to put their values on display in the We Stand With God rally. For more than an hour, people stood in rain-spattered Liberty Plaza, opposite the Capitol. Attendees huddled under a canopy of umbrellas, as if peeping out from under huge flowers. On a lectern, a succession of ministers and elected officials affirmed their belief in Christian principles.
Underscoring each brief speech was the certainty that a struggle is taking place in homes, churches and statehouses; the outcome of that conflict could spell America’s doom or deliverance.
“We are at war!” said the Rev. Garland Hunt, senior pastor at The Father’s House, a nondenominational church in Norcross. “Who would ever believe that man would redefine marriage? Who would believe anyone would redefine men’s and women’s bathrooms?”
Hunt gestured toward the governor’s office in the Capitol, standing stark and white against the gray sky. “(Deal) does not have the authority to veto God out of the state of Georgia!”
People cheered — among them, Jim Sauers of Hamilton Mill. He drove an hour to Atlanta, windshield wipers whapping the whole way, to join fellow believers.
“This battle is huge,” said Sauers. “It’s real. We’re in the middle of it.”