The Road from Selma

February 11, 2015

I saw the powerful motion picture Selma this weekend. It should be required viewing for every high school student in the United States (and adult if there were any way to make that happen). It moved me to tears several times.

Martin Luther King, Jr., led these young and old men and women with no guarantee they would even survive the push. All King had was the truth, and he said it with such eloquence. Emboldened by his sacred vision, his followers then had to face up to low-lifes like Sheriff Jim Clark and his so-called “posse.”

But what really affected me was the unity of clergy for freedom and against bigotry. King called on fellow clergy from around the country to support the march from Selma to Montgomery, and they came from all denominations. The movie shows a Greek Orthodox prelate and nuns on the front lines with King along with Rev. Ralph Abernathy and many others.   Some have faulted the movie for not depicting more clearly the involvement of the many Rabbis who also stepped forward, but the overall effect is that of a multi-denominational front for freedom and civil rights.

What a sharp contrast to today! Now we have evangelical, Mormon, and Catholic clergy hiding behind statutes and bills with misleading names like the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”)” and the “Preventing Government Overreach on Religious Expression Act” with an agenda of discrimination against the LGBTQ community (not to mention the endangerment of women and children).

I simply don’t know how these clergy can distinguish the Jim Crow era of Selma from their own “religious liberty” push to institute Jim Crow laws for lesbians, homosexuals, and transsexuals. Their so-called religious “liberty” laws have been justified in state after state as necessary so that bakers, photographers, and caterers don’t have to abide by the public accommodations laws and public servants can discriminate against the public that doesn’t share their faith. The so-called “expression” act typically is intended to let students engage in hate speech against LGBTQ students.

The fault lies in RFRA. It’s apple-pie title, legal jargon, and the usual, misleading lobbying tactics make it the perfect cover for discrimination. Worse, it has persuaded believers they owe nothing to the public good. Discrimination against the LGBTQ is just one dark corner of the current “religious liberty” regime.

In stark contrast to Selma, too many clergy today crouch behind a RFRA to denigrate, discriminate, and dominate. Their goal is not wholesome liberty and the public good, but rather: “who cares about you when my God is behind me?”   Where does that take us?

Not on the road from Selma.







Marci Hamilton

Marci A. Hamilton is one of the United States’ leading church/state scholars and is a Fox Family Pavilion Distinguished Scholar in Residence in the Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the Academic Director and President of CHILD USA, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to interdisciplinary evidence-based research and tracking of medical, legal, and psychological developments to prevent and deter child abuse and neglect, which she co-leads with Dr. Steven Berkowitz, University of Pennsylvania Medical School, and Dr. Paul Offit, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She holds the Paul R. Verkuil Research Chair at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, through 2018.