On Wednesday night, the city of Houston, Texas passed an ordinance banning discrimination based on, among other characteristics, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, sex, nationality, age, religion, disability, pregnancy, and military status. Given the sweeping nature of the measure, it will undoubtedly have real, positive effects for people who are marginalized or discriminated against simply because of who they are.
But in an irony too great to ignore, the parties of god find themselves as untouched as their ideal unmarried woman:
“The ordinance applies to businesses that serve the public, private employers, housing, city employment and city contracting. Religious institutions would be exempt.”
In other words, the institutions most likely to engage in, and are fundamentally the origin of, the very sexism, homophobia, and general xenophobia that the ordinance combats may discriminate unhindered.
Religious exemptions like this are a perfect encapsulation of an age old refrain meant to shield those who say it from critique and ridicule: “It’s my faith.”
Remember these three words, and you can get away with holding some of the most ludicrous beliefs against common decency and good sense imaginable.
Gay people shouldn’t be able to marry. It’s my faith.
People whose religions are different from mine are going to hell. It’s my faith.
Atheists shouldn’t be president. It’s my faith.
Jews cause mischief and corruption. It’s my faith.
Women should sit at the back of the bus. It’s my faith.
Apostasy should be punishable by death. It’s my faith.
I murdered a woman. It’s my faith.
And on and on with this patently dangerous nonsense that, were it not divinely sanctioned, would be universally dismissed out of hand as the garbage that it is. Instead, these sentiments have justification in sacred texts written by ignorant men of antiquity who knew less about the world than a modern day middle school student. Yet amazingly, not only do believers accept these ideas as facts, but even those who do not, actually respect these dearly held beliefs.
It’s a matter of faith, you see.
The act is growing tiresome. When Pope Francis flashes the slightest sign that he and by extension the Catholic Church may be softening on gay rights, for example, he is hailed as a progressive. In reality, he remains to the right of George W. Bush on gay issues. Or take his steadfast position against women’s ordination into the priesthood. Imagine a corporation that reserved executive positions for only men. It would be boycotted until it either changed the policy or went broke.
Why the pass for the pope and so many other religious figures around the world? Simple. It’s their faith.
That is why in Houston’s ordinance a special exemption had to be carved out for religious institutions. Rather than proudly speak out in favor of the measure and against discrimination and bigotry, those doing god’s work denounced it as an assault on their way life.
To respect faith in such a way is to set despairingly low expectations. Religion has been an impediment to reason, freedom, progress, and peace for millennia. From slavery to geocentrism, from misogyny to creationism, from homophobia to sectarianism, religion has fought — not aided — the advance of a more enlightened human civilization. The sooner we cast aside these ancient mythologies, the better we will be able to grapple with 21st century realities.