I grew up hearing about the civil rights era lunch counter sit-ins. It took me a while to understand that they were about much more than food.
In Greensboro, NC, in 1960, four Black students sat down at a Whites-only counter in a Woolworths store and refused to move until served. They sat down at Woolworths and other counters over the next five months, disrupting the custom that they shouldn’t expect the same service that White people received.
Some restaurant owners and patrons sincerely believed that Black people and White people shouldn’t eat together and that integration was a kind of moral contamination. Some of their religious leaders taught them that; after all, the Klan was a religious organization as well as a political one.
The discrimination of that era was sustained in large part because of religious rhetoric and people of faith. As much as people of faith worked together to expose segregation as ethically bankrupt, people of faith also worked really hard to keep it and the “good order” segregationists claimed to be preserving.
Evil doesn’t require cold-hearted monsters to persist. It only requires ordinary people who are willing to follow exclusionary customs, and it doesn’t matter whether they credit God for those customs or not.
For example, when Lucille Lewis Byard developed pneumonia near Washington, D.C., her husband took her to be treated at the Washington Sanitarium and Hospital (later Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, Maryland).
But it was 1943, and the good religious people at the San stopped treating Byard when they realized she was Black. They referred her across DC to the “colored” hospital at Howard University, and she died. The prejudice and negligence of the San’s medical staff—discrimination—meant that a woman lost her life.
Exactly 70 years later, a florist in Washington State stopped arranging flowers for longtime clients, a same-sex couple, when she learned that they were planning their wedding. She’s cited her sincerely held beliefs for this choice.
It’s true that no one died in the state of Washington because they didn’t get flowers. It’s also true that no one died in Greensboro, NC, because they didn’t get lunch. But people sat in at the Woolworth’s counters for months, because they recognized that the stakes were greater than food. The stakes are greater than flowers.
People have been using religion as an excuse to deny others services, facilities, or benefits for years: unfortunately, it’s not new for people to refuse to serve others on the basis of who they are and how they’re socially classified. It’s not new because sometimes our sincerely held beliefs are trash.
But we’ve had this discussion before. We have, as a society, decided that discrimination in public accommodations is not ok and does not deserve to be protected. It explicitly harms the people who’re marked for unequal treatment and it implicitly corrodes neighborly trust in communities as well.
I’d like to see more people of faith who will honor our religions’ best values and say that.
Next weekend, Believe Out Loud team members will travel with other organizers to Greensboro, NC. There they’ll spend a day training people of faith to recognize discrimination and learn to share how discriminatory policies affect their daily lives. If you know anyone who’ll be in commuting distance of Greensboro on February 25, encourage them to sign up. Materials will be delivered in both English and Español.