CNN’s Lemon Compares Religious Freedom Laws to What ‘They Did with Black Folks’

For the second time in a week, CNN Tonight host Don Lemon entered into an on-air debate late Wednesday with a conservative by misrepresenting the newly-signed religious freedom law in Mississippi as akin to “discrimination,” banning interracial marriage, and what “they did with black folks” before the Civil Rights Era.

Decisively outgunned by former Department of Justice official Roger Severino of the Heritage Foundation, Lemon ignored the fact that the term “sexual orientation” is never mentioned in the law and instead accused Severino of not listening to his liberal viewpoints and being “disingenuous.”

Lemon embarked on the two-segment discussion by telling correspondent Polo Sandoval in Mississippi that the law’s only a “so-called religious freedom bill” and marked “the latest in a wave of discrimination laws since the south since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.”

When Severino and Democratic State Representative Steve Holland were finally welcomed on with the deck stacked against Severino, Lemon started by asking “what do you do say to those who say it’s discriminatory.”

In one of the few instances where Severino was given time before being interrupted, the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society head explained:

I think they're mistaken. The bill actually answers as fundamental question. Are we going to be a society who believes in live and let live where multiple views of marriage can actually co-exist or is it winner take all where judges and government will take one view of marriage...will coerce religious people and institutions to come along under penalties, under fines and revocation of tax exemption?

Lemon fired back by claiming that “with all due respect,” the law “goes beyond marriage” and “sounds likes the same argument for Loving v. Virginia, which was decided years ago between people of two different races.”

Severino noted that “race is entirely different” from this debate and he would know based on having served in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. Instead, it’s “tailored very specifically to the wedding context for religious freedom” and “the word ‘sexual orientation’ appears nowhere in this bill.”

Naturally, Lemon promoted how “a number of corporations have also denounced this bill” and implored Severino to consider how it could “hurt” Mississippi’s economy, but the openly-gay CNN anchor’s arguments did nothing to sway his conservative guest.

Moments later, the debate took a bizarre turn when Lemon complained that an individual’s expressions of faith should be exclusively “what happens on Sunday” and “what happens inside of you as the Bible says because this law is about conservative Christianity” and not “any other religion.”

Upon returning from commercial, Lemon chose to not read from the law directly but instead a slanted CNN.com article badger his guest (without acknowledging what he was reading from):

[E]xplain to me how this is not discrimination. “Under the law, religious organizations will be able to deny LGBT people marriage, adoption, and foster care services, fire or refuse to employ them and decline to rent or sell them property.” It sounds the same thing they did with black folks. How is this not discrimination.

Severino called Lemon out for not reading from the actual legislation, but the CNN anchor instead accused him of not listening and being “disingenuous”:

SEVERINO: But the words matter. Don, the words matter. That's what the law means. It’s based on the words and the words say it's focused on the issue of marriage. 

LEMON: But I think you're being disingenuous here because the law —

SEVERINO: That’s what the — I have it right here.

LEMON: Will you listen to me? Under the law, religious organizations will be able to deny LGBT people marriage. Is that wrong? 

SEVERINO: No. The clerks are actually required to provide marriage licenses. If we’re talking about marriage, that’s already handled. Clerks are allowed to opt out under the law so long as somebody is there to provide that marriage license seamlessly.

As my colleague Matthew Balan thoroughly outlined on Friday when Lemon guest-anchored CNN’s New Day and, in a similar fashion, brazenly mischaracterized the law as a “code” word for “discrimination.”

The relevant portions of the transcript from April 6's CNN Tonight can be found below.

CNN Tonight
April 6, 2016
10:38 p.m. Eastern

DON LEMON: Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed a so-called religion freedom bill this week. He says it protects, quote, “sincerely-held religious beliefs and moral convictions of individuals, organizations, and private associations.” Critics are blasting the law as legalized discrimination.

(....)

LEMON [TO CORRESPONDENT POLO SANDOVAL]: I mean, this bill is the latest in a wave of discrimination laws since the south since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, but this one has specifically strong language.

(....)

LEMON: Roger, you support this bill. What do you say to those who say it's discriminatory? 

ROGER SEVERINO: I think they're mistaken. The bill actually answers as fundamental question. Are we going to be a society who believes in live and let live where multiple views of marriage can actually co-exist or is it winner take all where judges and government will take one view of marriage — the new view — will coerce religious people and institutions to come along under penalties, under fines and revocation of tax exemption? And Mississippi has said no, we going to respect freedom. We’re going to respect tolerance for dissent and protect people like Baronelle Stutzman. She’s a 70-year-old grandmother florist from Washington who was fined not because she reserved to serve people. It was about marriage ceremonies. 

LEMON: But with all due respect, Roger, but with all due respect, this goes beyond marriage. It talks about sexual relationships, it talks about, you know, gender and all that. It goes beyond marriage. Listen and I have to ask you with all due respect, it sounds likes the same argument for Loving v. Virginia, which was decided years ago between people of two different races. What's the difference here? 

SEVERINO: Well, I disagree. I think race is entirely different. I was at the Civil Rights Division for the Department of Justice for seven years. I enforced our anti-discrimination laws. This is a passion of mine and this is entirely different. This is entirely about religious freedom. It is tailored very specifically to the wedding context for religious freedom —

LEMON: But religious freedom was also used in Loving v. Virginia as well and they said the bible said it was against people of two people marrying?

SEVERINO: Yes and race is different. This has nothing to do with race and in fact, the word “sexual orientation” appears nowhere in this bill. This is in response to an activist Supreme Court decision that overturned the will of the people around the country and redefined marriage for everyone, including Mississippi. They had a constitutional amendment that said marriage is a union of one man and one woman. It's the same belief that president Obama had as recently as 2012. 

(....)

LEMON: So, Roger, here is what the Mississippi ACLU tweeted: “Welcome to #Mississippi, the hospitality state that says you're okay only if you're straight and married! #shameonphil.” And a number of corporations have also denounced this bill. I mean, don’t you think this is going to hurt — look at all these companies that provide services and businesses and jobs to the people of your state. Do you think this is going to hurt Mississippi economically? 

(....)

SEVERINO: Again, I sued bigots for the Justice Department for seven years. I know what discrimination looks like. This is entirely different. This is a very tailored, specific, balanced law that addresses the issues related to marriage in a supreme court decision. It allows people to dissent in the wedding service context, religious institutions, religious education facilities, adoption facilities, it's very focused, very tailored and balanced. There should be room for people of faith to express their beliefs and not be punished by the government. 

LEMON: But isn't that what happens on Sunday? Isn’t that what happens on Sundays? Isn't that what happens inside of you as the Bible says because this law is about conservative Christianity. It does not mention any other religion. It does not mention the text or any one other type religion. It’s about conservative Christianity, so it doesn't seem to respect the wishes of other people from other religions. It just seems to be focused on Christianity. I need to get a break in but I'll let you respond. So, stay with me. When we come back, are these religious freedom laws damaging the GOP and will the party pay a price in November?

(....)

LEMON: Could the religious freedom battle in Mississippi have an impact on the presidential election?...Okay, Roger, we were speaking before and you were saying, Roger, you know, how this is different, it's not discriminatory, you’ve worked for — here’s what this bill would — and explain to me how this is not discrimination. Under the law, religious organizations will be able to deny LGBT people marriage, adoption, and foster care services, fire or refuse to employ them and decline to rent or sell them property. It sounds the same thing they did with black folks. How is this not discrimination.

SEVERINO: Well, first, that’s not what the bill says. The bill doesn’t mention sexual orientation —

LEMON: The bill will allow — it doesn’t mention that, but that’s what it will allow. It may not explicitly say that, but it will allow for that because fo the language.

SEVERINO: But the words matter. Don, the words matter. That's what the law means. It’s based on the words and the words say it's focused on the issue of marriage. 

LEMON: But I think you're being disingenuous here because the law —

SEVERINO: That’s what the — I have it right here.

LEMON: Will you listen to me? Under the law, religious organizations will be able to deny LGBT people marriage. Is that wrong? 

SEVERINO: No. The clerks are actually required to provide marriage licenses. If we’re talking about marriage, that’s already handled. Clerks are allowed to opt out under the law so long as somebody is there to provide that marriage license seamlessly.

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