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Jerry Falwell
Jerry Falwell

Arizona’s odious anti-gay “religious freedom” bill would have exempted true believers from state anti-discrimination and other laws if they could argue that compliance would violate their religious beliefs or moral principles. Fortunately, Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill Wednesday.

But imagine if that kind of thinking had prevailed 50 years ago, when Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. We might still be living in a land of whites-only lunch counters and segregated movie theaters.

Many of the arguments for segregation had religious foundations. Misguided preachers, including the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, cited Bible verses that they said showed separation of the races was God’s plan.

During a 14-hour filibuster inveighing against the act, the late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., cited proscriptions in Leviticus against allowing farm animals to cross-breed, and against sowing fields with several kinds of seeds.

“God’s statute, therefore, recognizes the natural order of the separateness of things,” Byrd said.

If Congress had inserted a “religious exemption” like Arizona’s into the Civil Rights Act, segregationists would have embraced it en masse. Jim Crow probably would have survived virtually intact.

When Brewer vetoed the Arizona bill, she said it had “the potential to create more problems than it purports to solve.”

She was right. You won’t find any mention of gays or sexual orientation or same-sex marriage in the bill’s text. It could have opened the door to religion-based discrimination against just about anyone.

We’ve been there. Let’s not go back.