The Wesboro Amendment

Anger and disgust can provoke competing and counterproductive emotions.

One leaves an observer of events rendered speechless.   The other leaves the observer spewing heated words that tumble over themselves and become so tangled that their value is lost.

So it is with the accounts of last week’s Missouri Senate passage of a proposed constitutional amendment under the guise of protecting religious freedom.  Perhaps through the discipline of writing and editing, thoughts will have some order.

Thank God, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was not discovered in, say, 1953, before Brown v. the Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Millions of Americans and thousands of Missourians might today still be denied equal access to housing, education, jobs, bathrooms, and drinking fountains if RFRA allowed them to be targeted for exclusion from equality under law by those who claimed to be motivated by a “sincere religious belief.”  Unfortunately, sexual orientation was not a high enough profile issue fifty or sixty years ago when civil rights, public accommodations, and fair housing laws were enacted with protections for various citizen groups that had suffered discrimination for decades, which is why bigotry in the guise of religious freedom is today able to attack a segment of our citizenry that was far less visible in 1964.

Only a few hours after Senate leader Ron Richard threatened reprisals against fellow senators who did not respect the traditions of the Senate, he was one of 21 Republican senators who signed a Previous Question motion that immediately stopped the Democrat’s filibuster against Senate Joint Resolution 39. So much for the Senate tradition of respecting the right of the minority to try to keep the majority from steamrolling legislation opponents think detrimental to the general population. We have observed the Republicans being quite reluctant to move the PQ when a filibuster is led by their own members.

Two, and sometimes three, Republicans voted with the Democrats who wanted the official record of the proceedings to reflect some of the things that happened during that filibuster.  Three Republican Senators, Bob Dixon, Ryan Silvey, and Rob Schaaf, voted with the Democrats against the move to stop the debate.

But Dixon and Silvey voted for the bill.

Schaaf was the only Republican to split with his party and join all of the Democrats who voted “no” on final approval of the proposed constitutional amendment.

Dixon and Silvey supported Democrats’ unsuccessful effort to amend the official record of the filibuster to show that the sponsor of the bill, Bob Onder, had suggested summoning the Highway Patrol to get two absent senators back into the chamber.

Dixon was furious when his fellow Republicans refused to let the amendments to the record be adopted.  The normally soft-spoken Dixon was uncharacteristically loud in his attack: “I am a senator, and I am disgusted at the slope and the speed with which this body is descending. When one member is disrespected, when any member has their rights disregarded in such a dastardly way, every Senator loses.  And not only that, our constituents are disrespected, the people are disrespected!”

But Dixon, who was concerned about disrespect for his constituents and for “the people” generally, voted for the bill.

Silvey also was angry about the rejection of the wording explaining what had happened during the debate.  “To say this did not happen is ridiculous,” he told his colleagues on the senate floor. And he continued, “What happened yesterday at the end of the debate was disturbing at best.  The fact we had members seeking recognition and ignored regardless of party should offend everyone in this room…What this debate is about is the soul of the Senate.”

But Silvey voted for the bill.

Senator Rob Schaaf, who has been part of Republican-led filibusters that were not stopped with PQs was the only one who continued to stand with Democrats.  “The beauty of the Senate design is destroyed…by not following our rules,” he said.  He called his party’s treatment of filibustering Democrats “disrespectful.”

Schaaf would have voted for the bill.

But he did not because he thought his party’s forced shutdown of debate raised “the stink of tyranny.”

This bill—which might be on our ballots later this year, thus presenting voters with the opportunity to further define Missouri’s narrowness or reject it (both, we suspect, in the name of religion)—and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act seem to spring from those who want to enforce the idea that this always-pluralistic country has always been some kind of “Christian nation.”

They want to be the ones who define “Christian.”

And that should strike a chord of fear in all of us.

You know who probably is cheering for our legislature as it works on SJR39?  The folks at the Wesboro Baptist Church in Topeka. This is their kind of religion.  The kind of people who show up at military funerals with signs reading “God Hates Fags,” whose web site says it stands against “the fag lifestyle of soul-damning nation-destroying filth,” love the kind of politics behind this kind of legislation.

So let’s just call this bill “The Wesboro Amendment.”

Interestingly, the Wesboro Baptist Church hasn’t needed RFRA to protect its religious freedoms.  It has the First Amendment, as we all do. Is the Missouri legislature so craven in its desire to appeal to the voting bloc known as “Evangelicals” that it advocates making the theology of the Wesboro Baptist Church part of our state constitution?  The actions last week are an answer to the prayers of the Wesboro faithful.

In Christian worship centers for the hundreds of denominations and non-denominational believers, a faith that advocates love for others is preached.  We wonder how many of those who voted for this bill have opened their hymnals on Sunday mornings and have sung Peter Scholtes hymn:

We are one in the spirit; we are one in the Lord, and we pray that all unity may one day be restored.

We will walk with each other; we will walk hand-in-hand, and together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land.

All praise to the Father from whom all things come and all praise to the spirit who makes us one.

(chorus):  And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

Or the words from the thirteenth chapter of the New Testament book of Paul’s letter to the Christians at Corinth that are familiar and often used in marriage ceremonies—of all kinds– perhaps some of the ceremonies involving some of those who voted for the Wesboro Amendment:

If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing.  If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it, but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing…”

Three things last forever—faith, hope, and love.  But the greatest of these is love. 

In a matter of hours last week, the State Senate and its leaders demonstrated that talk of respect for tradition is cynical babbling in the face of partisan narrowness and they demonstrated how religion used for political purposes ignores the basic tenant of the teachings of the its founders.

Some of us, in observing recent events in the Senate, have heard the noisy gongs and the clanging cymbals.  And the noise and the clanging played a tune called “riffra” as the Wesboro Amendment moved closer to a ballot in Missouri this year.

Let me know what you think......