“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must we be of learning from experience?” — George Bernard Shaw
The expansion of liberty through inclusion has been one of the most consistent factors in the American experience. My positive spin on American exceptionalism is that it involves the ever expanding inclusion into the American experience for once excluded groups.
The recent Supreme Court decision recognizing basic human rights for the LGBT community has caused many localities to attempt to push back on this newly recognized constitutional protection. We are seeing a repeat of the kind of history from which we should have learned.
For instance, the West Virginia House Judiciary Committee recently approved House Bill 4012 dubbed “The West Virginia Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” This law, if ultimately passed, will potentially allow people to discriminate against members of the LGBT community under the guise of religious liberty.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act has resulted in fierce opposition from civil rights advocates and the business community. Many in the business community have recognized this bill has the potential to negatively affect our business climate. Businesses such as the West Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association, AT&T, Embassy Suites, Charleston Marriott Town Center and Generation West Virginia have all decried the potential passage of this legislation. The negative national perception that West Virginia is not diversity friendly would be enhanced by the passage of this legislation.
Unfortunately, as Shaw’s quote suggests, we continually fail to learn from our past experiences. Throughout American history there has always been a retrenchment whenever the expansion of liberty included new constituencies. This retrenchment became apparent after women’s suffrage successes and immigration progress in the 1920s, the civil rights gains of the 1950s and ’60s and voter registration obstruction after the election of our current president.
The most stark and tragic example of backlash following an expansion of liberty occurred after the Civil War. After the 1865 defeat of the secessionist south, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution as well as congressional civil rights laws were passed abolishing slavery and providing protections for the newly freed slaves. After these new protections were granted, restrictive laws, known as “Black Codes,” were passed in the South to hamper the progress of the former slaves,
For instance, under these Black Codes African-Americans without proof of employment faced charges and fines for vagrancy. Since most blacks in the South had recently been unpaid slaves and were often not employed with virtually no assets, few had the resources to pay these fines. Those arrested and convicted under the Black Codes could be, and often were, forced to work on plantations. For many, this was a reinstitution of slavery.
Importantly, these restrictive codes did not enhance the Southern states’ recovery from the Civil War. Actually, these types of restrictive laws caused many to leave the Southern states at a time when there was a great need for diverse ideas on how to enhance the economic development of this war-torn region. Many of the most capable people left and the loss of brain and labor power became a drain on the economic recovery of the area.
West Virginia is unquestionably in an economic predicament. While some have misguidedly attempted to blame the Obama administration for our woes, particularly in the coal industry, any reasonable person should admit that our economic issues have developed over a long period of time. This includes the demise of “sunset” industries like the state’s chemical, glass and steel industries and a coal industry that is not close to being nor will ever be the employer it once was.
West Virginia’s commercial success for the 21st century will include the growth of industries such as tourism, hospitality and technology. Our Mountain State must signal that we are open and inviting to diverse constituencies. West Virginia is one of the least-diverse states in the nation and we continue to lose an alarming amount of our population on an annual basis. Every signal we send will be closely scrutinized by the nation and world as to whether our state is a positive place to live.
The First Amendment protection for the freedom of religion is one of the strongest and most cherished notions of our ordered liberty. However, freedom of religion should never be used as a pretense to discriminate. We do not need to “restore” our freedom of religion because it has not been lost.
As Shaw also said, “We are made wise not (just) by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.” Our future in West Virginia depends on learning from the past and presenting a positive example of inclusive excellence.
David M. Fryson, a lawyer, pastor and vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion for West Virginia University, is a Gazette contributing columnist.