Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What Vox gets wrong about Mississippi's anti-LGBT law.

Vox's explainer gets a little too cute today in discussing state-level LGBT laws:

What if I told you Mississippi's law doesn't actually allow anything new?

Now, the new law does technically allow discrimination against LGBTQ people: It lets bakery owners, for instance, cite religious beliefs to deny services to same-sex couples seeking to buy a wedding cake. 
But even before the new law was passed, this type of anti-LGBTQ discrimination was entirely legal in the state, because neither Mississippi nor any municipality in the state included sexual orientation or gender identity in its nondiscrimination protections. So it was already legal for Mississippi businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people, whether they cited religious beliefs or just said they don't like gay or transgender people.
This is both true — and good on Vox for helping readers understand that gays don't have protection in many places — but also kind of missing the point.

No, gays didn't have that legal protection in many states. But it's also a relatively new thing to write into the law that certain types of discrimination will be explicitly protected by the state.

As much as anything, laws have signaling functions: In this case, they allow a specific group (Christians) to deny services to a specific group (gays) in a way that's pretty rare in the rest of our laws.

I'm on record saying I'd rather my gay friends and Christian friends find solutions that avoid big fights like this — there ought to be room for both sides to exercise their rights without it becoming a zero-sum game that nobody really wins — and Vox is right that discrimination against gays is often legal.

But the law was silent before. It now affirms the discrimination. The effect may be moot, but the signal is not. That's new, and it's troubling.

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