Senator Coats Embarrasses Us in Washington

The U.S. Senate has finally passed the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), a measure that has been languishing in Congress for at least twenty years despite the fact that for a good part of that time, multiple polls have shown support for passage hovering around 80%. (Approval by the more dysfunctional House remains uncertain.)

ENDA extends the basic civil rights protections that currently prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of race, religion and gender to GLBT workers. In other words, if you are an employer who is subject to civil rights laws, you can no longer fire someone –or refuse to hire someone–solely because s/he is gay or lesbian.

Although a number of Republican Senators voted against the measure, only one Senator took the floor to urge its rejection: Indiana’s own Dan Coats.

Coats says ENDA “violates religious liberty.”  And it is certainly true that the law would prevent people whose religions preach intolerance from acting on that intolerance in the workplace.

Coats is making the same arguments that were used by those opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequent state-level civil rights laws. “My religion teaches that women should tend the home.” “My religion teaches that black people shouldn’t mingle with whites.” And of course, the ever-popular, “A law telling me I can’t disapprove of certain people and refuse to serve/employ/educate them is an infringement of my liberty to run my establishment as I see fit.”

Well, yes it is. That’s the price we pay for living in a system that strives for equal protection of the laws, a system that separates civil law from religious beliefs.

I first met Dan Coats in 1980, when we were both Republican candidates for Congress. (He won his race; I lost mine.) When he later ran for Senate, he asked if I would host a fundraiser for him, and I agreed. I hadn’t paid much attention to his record, however, and when I asked several female friends if they would attend, I got an earful about his positions on reproductive rights and other issues affecting women. (For younger people who may be reading this, I kid you not: before the party effectively became an arm of fundamentalist Christianity, the GOP used to harbor lots of pro-choice women. Honest. Google it if you don’t believe me.)

When I explained to Dan that his votes to make abortion illegal made him persona non grata to pretty much anyone I’d invite, he was gracious about it. But I’ve never forgotten his explanation: “this is a religious issue for me.”

There are two problems with this defense. First, my religion (and that of many other Americans) had–and has– a very different view of reproductive morality, just as today religious denominations have very different positions on same-sex marriage. And second, the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits people like Dan Coats or Rick Santorum or anyone else from using the law to impose their religious beliefs on those who don’t share them.

Coats is a perfect illustration of a phenomenon that drives me batty–the (apparently sincere) belief that if the law isn’t forcing everyone to live by his religious rules, he is the one being discriminated against.

Take that position to its logical consequences, and a diverse society could neither exist nor function. Dan Coats doesn’t have to like gay people, or Jewish people, or any other people. He doesn’t have to invite us into his private club, or invite us over for dinner. He does, however, have to share civil society with us.

And that, Dan, requires giving unto others the same rights you demand for yourself.

Speaking of morality, I would submit that an inability to understand that simple truth–an inability to respect the equal human dignity of people who differ from you– is a pretty significant moral failure in the view of most religions.


  1. But where does your logic end? You’re making the argument that religious views of people have to take a back seat whenever government dictates that those religious views are wrong.

    We have always interpreted the Free Exercise Clause to require that government make exceptions in their laws because of the legitimate religious views that people hod. I know courts have some times been inconsistent in this approach, but your approach is to gut that constitutional provision…to make null and void people living out their religious views whenever larger society dictates through its government decides they are wrong.

    I know courts have drawn a very gray line in this area, but it appears you wouldn’t draw any line at all. If government dictates it as good policy, people’s deeply-held religious views have to bend.

    The movement is on strong ground when the talk is about the allowing same sex marriage. But when it moves on and starts attacking religious liberty, mandating that people set aside their religious beliefs. I don’t know how you advance the cause of ending discrimination by discriminating against people because of their religious beliefs.

    For the record, I agree with you regarding Coats answer on the abortion issue. I don’t like it. You don’t have to resort to religion to be against abortion. After all, a lot of atheists are opposed to abortion. I was turned against abortion, especially mid and later term abortion, after doing a research paper on pre-natal development in college. That really opened my eyes.

  2. Coats – and the entire GOP – need to read the comments posted by Nancy Papas yesterday on your “Because freedom. Or something.” blog. They COULD learn much but doubtful they can be changed from their position of being the only ones in this country who really understand the Bible and the only ones who are always right. I doubt anyone reading this is surprised by Coats’ comments from the Senate seat he purchased with money working as a lobbyist while living in a southern state for several years.

  3. Excuse the grammar issues I didn’t fix before I posted. I wish there was an edit button.

  4. Coats, will be able to tell the Bible Thumpers – see I voted for Hoosier Values. The Republican Party and to a lesser extent some Democrats made a huge mistake when they let the TV-Evangelists to acquire so much power.

  5. Mr Ogden, late term abortion is usually because of the health of the Mother or the child. For example, most practices in pre-natal care determine that an ultra sound be performed at the 20th week of pregnancy. That day was the day that my neighbor learned that the female baby she was carrying did not develop a brain. The baby had a brain stem but not a brain. She lived in Indiana and had the choice of carrying the baby to term (it was her second baby) or have a late term abortion. She decided to have the baby which was born about a month early but SHE HAD THE CHOICE. (The baby died within an hour). What your religion wants to tell everyone is that there is no choice for women. And this is the 21st Century !!!

    On this post I say to you…if Senator Coats was a muslim, would you allow his views to be expressed in Congress ? Would his religion be fair to bring up even though Christians outnumber muslims? Would you still support his view?

    Christians have the loudest and most populous voices in this country, yet you people keep complaining about your freedom of religion being silenced. How could we silence you people? There are so many of you? Yet, you’re always the victim of discrimination, which is hooey.

    The constitution is about FREEDOM from (YOUR) religion. I wished that we would remove God from everything government related. There is no place for God in our society’s construction of laws.

    Yes, JoAnn, Nancy’s post was brilliant. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. “I don’t know how you advance the cause of ending discrimination by discriminating against people because of their religious beliefs.” Paul Ogden, supra.

    Paul, give it up. Her son is gay.

    “Maybe it’s because I have a gay son, and lots of gay friends and relatives. ” “Why Law Matters,”, July 8, 2007.

    To the left, there are no principles, only desired outcomes. She has a gay son and a gay social circle. She wants that peer group to have a smooth ride. Pass the laws to make it so. If these laws trample other people and groups she doesn’t really like, that’s just found money.

    All I know is that I’m going to start checking new boxes and employing the other sorts of unsolicited ways minorities use to gives employers notification of minority status. Isn’t Justin Bieber oh, so cute? That’s all it takes. I’m part gay. I now claim minority status.

    Does everyone know that around 70% of the country is a minority?

  7. Stuart; you read my mind. ALG; our Democratic Representative Andre Carson is Muslim and I have never heard any, or even heard OF any, religious references in his speeches or his actions. I receive his newsletter regularly; no references to his religion being the basis for his decisions or actions. He seems to understand, what Coats and too many GOP and Tea Party members do not. That religion is a personal choice and a private issue with no connection to politics, government, laws, ordinances or medical decisions being forced on the public by a political party determined to ignore the Constitution of the United States and the Amendments. President John F. Kennedy, our first Catholic president, kept religion out of his political life…it can be done and should be demanded of our elected officials.

  8. The first rule in arguing the truth of anything is to not be hateful, not that “American” is advocating anything positive to begin with, at least in this blog. It’s the sort of sadness you can’t reach.

  9. I always love what you write Sheila – it’s like you’re inside my head and the words come out of your mouth! I wrote Coats a letter – mailed it today, in fact – telling him how I feel about his lack of support. Yes, I was polite – however, I did get my point across. I am so tired of people who use religion to hide behind their bigotry and then act like THEY’RE being the ones discriminated against. I heard lots of this last night during the testimony in Hawaii as they were debating whether or not to pass SB1. I really need to go out and buy myself a thicker skin!

  10. I’m on Sen. Coats’ mailing list, because I asked to be on it. After his typically gutless comments, whining about the President or a law he cannot change or situation he doesn’t want to try to change, I often write a polite but direct response challenging him to do something creative to make the situation–whatever it may be–better for the common good. I really do not believe he has a clue, that he would not do anything if he did, that he is biding his time but that he is the puppet of other people to whom he owes his office. He is not rated as a particularly courageous individual by various web sites that rate legislators, and was about the best that the Republicans could come up with, which is a sad thought for this state considering that this is such an important and critical office.

  11. “Does everyone know that around 70% of the country is a minority?”

    But that would make the remaining 30% minorities as well – minorities for not being minorities.

  12. Here is my response to Senator Dan Coats tirade on the Senate Floor.

    Another perspective: People fear what challenges their own worth as humans, especially in dealing with things they dont understand, specifically because of ignorant nurturing (since we know sexuality is both a continuum and natural dispensation) or a sheltered environment. The idea that there could be an entire people group, set aside in the scope of creation, specifically to clean up their mess and still want to create one of their own, freaks them out to no end, and it can cause a psychological offense – that cuts to the heart of their own perspective of how God values them – without realizing that the balancing act of three genders male, female, and GLBT (commonly refereed to as a Eunuch or Chamberlain in the Bible), were an intentional mirroring of a Triune Deity whom just wanted to make sure that Humanity shared HIS love completely.

    And lastly, Senator, you are in violation of the Constitution, by applying ‘a religious test’ to ‘a person holding the position of Public Trust’ as ENDA and Marriage Equality both effect, that very same stipulation within the Constitution. Please apologize from the floor of the Senate promptly and submit yourself to censure immediately or resign from Office for your disgraceful acts in the name of every Hoosier and go back to Virginia, pretty please and thank you very much.

  13. Coates is just another embarrassing religious bigot, playing on the provincial, small minded goofs in Indiana. Can’t remember what jesus said that was anti gay. I wonder what is his position on people getting remarried after divorce, which “jesus” clearly spoke against? Haven’t heard anything from him on that. Oh well, nothing that can’t be solved by screaming their heads off at the next colts game!

  14. I just received one of Sen. Coat’s pretentious emails in which he proposes a “bipartisan” solution to the medical care problem. The only thing that Mr. Coats can do in a bipartisan manner is to decide when Congress won’t be in session. These people can’t agree on immigration, voting rights or responsible gun ownership. Why does he believe that people would trust him to work out a bipartisan agreement on medical care?

  15. I moved to Ithaca recently to experience living in a Blue State. First thing I noticed was the number of times I heard the word “community.” That was good. Next thing I noticed was the number of gay and lesbian neighbors I had and the length of their relationships. Many of my new friends have been together for decades, many are married. It gives a whole new meaning to my support of gay marriage. Too bad that people like Sen. Coats can’t open their minds to accept others who think and believe differently than they do. Does Hoosier Hospitality only extend to straight people?

  16. There are a lot of laws that allow stuff we don’t want personally, but that is not the issue. The question is whether there is any reason not to permit an activity under the Constitution. It’s a mistake to mix up all one’s personal issues in with a Constitutional democratic government.

  17. I receive Coats “newsletter”. I frequently write and ask him to please do something for the common good, or at least something that makes sense. It falls on deaf ears.

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