When Vandy Beth Glenn wrote here at Skeptic Ink about bathroom panic and transphobes, I was skeptical about her characterization of this peculiar panic as something akin to the “sharpest arrow…in the fight against equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.” This was back when gay marriage was still a hot button issue in the ongoing culture wars, well over a year before Obergefell v. Hodges put it soundly to rest. It was not obvious to me upon what grounds the next major cultural battles would be fought, though perhaps the future was already clear to my esteemed colleague.
Much has changed since then, as the religious right been casting about for a new set of villains upon which to focus their efforts at collective sex-related shaming. They remain staunchly convinced that some hapless scapegoats must be made to bear the blame for America’s social ills; now that gays and lesbians are ever more accepted by the culture at large, social conservatives have directed their fear and loathing at transgender people in general and transgender students in particular. This process has been helped along by recent legal strides in the opposite direction, most notably legal guidance from the Department of Justice on how they intend to interpret and apply Title IX in cases of alleged sex discrimination on the basis of “gender identity, transgender status, or gender transition” in public schools.
Last week, the most regressive legislators in one of America’s reddest states have weighed in with a new twist on bathroom panic, one that makes public efforts at segregation by sex explicitly faith-based. The New York Times reports on SB1619 [full text], a bill designed to allow religiously devout students to request sex-segregated facilities as a “religious accommodation based on the student’s sincerely held religious beliefs” for “use of restrooms, athletic changing facilities or showers designated for the exclusive use of that student’s sex.”
Here in the American South, there is at least some prior precedent for using religious beliefs to justify segregation. Indeed, we used to have four separate restrooms in many of our public facilities, segregating ourselves both by race and sex, and it was not uncommon to justify both dichotomies as having been divinely ordained. (To this day, it is difficult to read the Bible from cover to cover without coming away with the sense that the Lord God Almighty strongly favors one particular race and one particular sex.) I suppose it should come as no great surprise that Oklahoma legislators have found a novel way to pervert religious freedom from an individual right of conscience into a means of singling out disfavored minorities for discrimination. Probably not for the last time, either.