Without LGBT rights, religious freedom fails

flickr via Nathan Mac

flickr via Nathan Mac

This week Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina scrambled to contain the damage caused by passage of a state law limiting bathroom access for transgender people and eliminating local anti-discrimination ordinances based on sexual orientation.

Under mounting pressure from civil liberties advocates and business interests, McCrory made what critics called cosmetic changes, notably issuing an executive order expanding the state’s employment policy for state workers to cover sexual orientation and gender identity.

Opponents of the law say McCrory’s actions are too little, too late. Absent repeal of the legislation, North Carolina will likely face more boycotts, protests and pushback from businesses threatening to cancel investments in the state.

The North Carolina legislation does not explicitly address religious freedom, but the media bundle it with the rash of religious freedom and anti-LGBT bills being introduced in state legislatures throughout the nation – more than 200 this year alone, according to the Human Rights Campaign Fund.

Although different in content and approach, these laws are all part of a national effort by religious conservatives to contain the advance of LGBT rights in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision affirming the constitutionality of same-sex marriage.

Last month, Mississippi’s governor signed into law the most draconian of all the religious freedom bills, allowing religious objectors, including private business owners, to refuse a wide range of products and services to LGBT people. Mississippi now faces a growing backlash from the state’s largest employers, spelling big trouble for the already troubled Mississippi economy. Georgia recently avoided this fate when Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a religious freedom bill passed by the state legislature earlier this year.

North Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia and other states with bitter, divisive and destructive battles over LGBT and religious freedom legislation are all states with no statewide civil rights laws that include sexual orientation and gender identity.

In other words, majorities of state legislators in these states want religious freedom for themselves, but are unwilling to ensure equality for LGBT people. A same-sex couple in Mississippi or North Carolina can get married today but get fired or evicted tomorrow.

This lack of reciprocity makes reasonable and balanced deliberations about bathroom privacy, religious accommodations for religiously affiliated groups or narrowly tailored opt-outs for county clerks virtually impossible in states where LGBT people have no rights – and thus no real place at the bargaining table.

Last year, Indiana learned the hard way that without first protecting LGBT people, religious freedom laws backfire. After the governor signed a religious freedom law, the nationwide backlash was swift and overwhelming. This year, faced with the loss of conferences, business investment, sports events and more, the legislature is considering a nondiscrimination bill protecting LGBT people and providing some religious exemptions.

Religious conservatives in Utah took a very different approach by joining with people from all sides to find common ground. Last March, after months of negotiation, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed into law compromise legislation protecting LGBT people from discrimination in housing and employment while also providing exemptions for religious institutions and protections for religious speech.

Although Utah’s law can’t be replicated everywhere since laws and conditions vary widely from state to state, Utah’s spirit of compromise – the willingness to seek a balance between LGBT rights and religious accommodations – is a model for how every state can find a shared solution if there is political will to do so.

Despite the harm opposition to LGBT protections does to the cause of religious freedom in states like North Carolina and Mississippi, many religious conservatives continue to adamantly oppose nondiscrimination laws for LGBT people. Out of religious conviction, they remain convinced that such laws would signal societal acceptance of what they consider a “lifestyle choice” that is sinful, wrong and dangerous.

But it escapes me why people of faith would countenance discrimination against any person, however much they disagree with who they are or who they love.

In a pluralistic democracy, people can and should debate differences about religion, sexual orientation and gender identity. But our common goal must be public policies that uphold both religious freedom and equality – two constitutional principles grounded in the inviolable dignity of every human being.

Charles C. Haynes is vice president of the Newseum Institute and founding director of the Religious Freedom Center.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @hayneschaynes

One thought on “Without LGBT rights, religious freedom fails

  1. Mr. Haynes, I’ve just read your article and I would like to comment. First, I’m a Gay man, 60 years old, and I’ve known I was Gay since an early age; it’s definitely not a Lifestyle choice. This year I’ll be celebrating 27 years with my husband. Since LGBTQ Rights have expanded, so too has been the backlash by so called Christians.

    We’ve been discriminated against a number of times while driving cross country and wanting to stay in quaint Inns or small hotels. We’d have reservations, which turn out to be no good when the proprietor saw we were a Gay couple. Or I’d see open rooms at a place online, call to reserve, only to be told no rooms when they found out we were Gay. It began happening too often to be coincidental that I began using an alternate email account, presented myself as a husband and wife looking for last minute rooms, and send the message to the places that turned us away, about 35 minutes after we were told no rooms for us. Every time there were rooms for a couple of different sexes. Nice huh? But there’s no Sexual Orientation part in the Federal Civil Rights Laws, that’s what is needed, for individual States will not act, just as they did not act in the 1950s and 1960s.

    I do have one more comment about the first amendment – how come these so called Religious Freedom Laws are not Unconstitutional based on the first part of the First Amendment???
    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” yet these laws all refer to a Religion. From the point of view of an Atheist, how can these Religious Freedom Laws be constitutional? I don’t understand.

    Personally, I think religious organizations are taking this too far. No one is preventing them from practicing their Religion, are they? And I am sure being allowed to discriminate against a specific group of people is not a Religious Practice.

    Also, I thought our Government could not favor one religion over others. But these Religious Freedom Laws all appear to favor Christians; why is that sir? And in effect, does that not violate the First Amendment?

    I apologize for the long comment, but I have been worried of late. The Republican Congress seems out of control. Republican State Houses are passing laws to allow legal discrimination of the LGBTQ Community. I don’t have Equal Rights in most States, yet the Supreme Court says my Marriage is equal to all others in our Nation.

    Kent N.

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