Why The Right's Response To Marriage Equality Is Anything But Principled

This post by PFAW and PFAW Foundation Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon was originally published in the Huffington Post. 

Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and other conservative leaders have recently lashed out against the Supreme Court's decision on marriage equality by proclaiming that local clerks who don't personally agree with marriage equality should not be required to issue marriage licenses or perform weddings for same-sex couples - even though it's their job to provide that service to the public.

Their logic is fundamentally flawed. Civil marriage is a civil function, not a religious one. Government employees allowing someone to access their legal rights are not doing anything religious, nor are they condoning the actions being licensed any more than with any other type of license.

That's why when government employees in our country have had religious objections to divorce and remarriage, they have still had to do their jobs. And when government employees have had religious objections to interracial marriages, they have still had to do their jobs. So, too, have government officials with other religious objections to whether or how certain couples get married.

But when the particular religious belief in question is opposition to lesbians and gays, that's apparently a different matter altogether. Now, suddenly, we're told that government employees need to have their religious liberty "protected."

A principle of religious liberty that is invoked only in the context of one particular religious belief is no principle at all. It is a pretext.

The far-right movement that is coalescing around these "protections" allowing civil servants to impose their religious beliefs on others and deny them service does not have clean hands in this regard. While they proclaim loudly that they just want to "live and let live," the policies they have pursued vigorously for decades have aggressively sought to prevent LGBT people from having basic human rights. The Right's new clamor for "protections" is just another form of homophobia.

If the religious right simply wanted to "live and let live," they would not have spent these past decades seeking to impose their religious beliefs about homosexuality on others both through custom and through force of law. They would not have boycotted television networks for airing shows portraying LGBT people as ordinary people. Nor would they have screamed bloody murder when popular celebrities came out of the closet. They would not have fought to prevent us from raising children. They would not have battled to ensure that surviving members of couples be denied Social Security survivor benefits. They would not have opposed letting us serve our country in the intelligence services or in the military. They would not have put so much energy into convincing Americans that we are sexual predators going after their children. They would not have tried to bar us from teaching in public schools. They would not have threatened us with criminal prosecution just for our private, consensual sexual conduct.

Whether it's religious refusals specific to marriage, more general Religious Freedom Restoration Acts in a post-Hobby Lobby world, or Sen. Mike Lee's misleadingly named "First Amendment Defense Act," the Right is yet again attacking LGBT people. With a growing number of Americans - and now the Supreme Court - affirming that the right to marry is a right guaranteed to all regardless of sexual orientation, some on the Right have come to understand that their best tactic to fight marriage equality is to couch their homophobic goals with the language of "religious liberty" instead of explicitly speaking out against LGBT rights. But it's up to all of us to make sure that they do not succeed in these efforts to portray themselves as virtuous defenders of religious liberty, because in reality they're just waging another war against LGBT people.
 

PFAW

Activists Join Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton to Protest Bogus ‘Religious Liberty’ Objections to DC Anti-Discrimination Law

The right-wing tactic of pushing discriminatory policies under the guise of religious freedom is nothing new -- we’ve already seen it used to hurt LGBT people in North Carolina, Louisiana, and elsewhere across the country. But now Republican lawmakers are going a step further, by attacking anti-discrimination legislation meant to protect Americans who aren't even represented in Congress.

The legislation is Washington, DC’s Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act (RHNDA), which would protect workers from being fired or punished by their employers for things like using birth control, getting pregnant without being married, or having an abortion. DC’s City Council recently passed RHNDA, and now Congress is using its (fundamentally undemocratic) authority to reverse DC’s local laws to repeal it on the grounds that it violates the religious freedom of employers. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee approved a rider that would block DC from using local funds to enforce RHNDA.

Today, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) held a press conference in DC, where she denounced these congressional attacks and praised the DC employers who have vowed to embrace RHNDA’s protections anyway.

“Republicans do not understand how united this city is against discrimination, and they do not need to; they just need to let the District be the District... Our Republican opponents claim that the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act will allow pro-choice employees of anti-choice organizations to espouse their own personal pro-choice beliefs.  That falsehood must be met with the truth that employees must carry out the mission of their employer.”

Nearly 33,000 people have already signed PFAW’s petition telling Congress not to meddle with DC’s Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act.

PFAW

North Carolina Pastor Speaks Out About Discriminatory 'Religious Freedom' Marriage Law

In response to a bill authorizing public officials to refuse to perform same-sex marriages becoming law in North Carolina this morning, Dr. Terence K. Leathers – a pastor at Mt. Vernon Christian Church in Clayton, North Carolina and a member of People For the American Way's African American Ministers In Action – released the following statement:

“Shame on our legislature for making this harmful and unnecessary bill become law. As a pastor, I believe this is not only a blow for the dignity of all North Carolinians but also a blow for true religious liberty.

“Governor McCrory did the right thing when he vetoed this bill, and the fact that our legislature overrode it shows just how far they will go in misusing the principle of religious liberty in order to discriminate. This is a sad day for our state.”

Last week, Dr. Leathers published an op-ed in The Huffington Post calling on the legislature not to misuse religious freedom to license public officials to discriminate.

PFAW

Rebuffed by Republican Legislators, Bobby Jindal Issues Executive Order on 'Religious Liberty'

In a Republican presidential field crowded with far-right candidates, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is trying to distinguish himself as the far-rightest candidate, especially on issues relating to marriage equality and its supposed threat to the religious freedom of conservative Christians.

Jindal’s latest came at the end of the day on Tuesday. Unwilling to accept the legislature’s failure to pass a so-called “religious liberty” bill (it was voted down 10-2 in a House committee), Jindal issued an executive order designed to protect any person who “acts in accordance with a religious belief that marriage is between one man and one woman.” The order explicitly defines “person” to include for-profit corporations and well as nonprofit organizations.

Jindal has adopted the rhetorical strategy promoted by the National Organization for Marriage and other opponents of LGTB equality: try to turn conversation about anti-gay discrimination “on its head” by declaring that laws protecting gay people are actually a form of discrimination against Christians. His statement about the executive order said it was designed to “prevent the state from discriminating against persons or entities with deeply held religious beliefs that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

Jindal’s order invokes the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby, making it the latest sign that the decision – which granted corporations a right to claim legal exemptions based on the religious beliefs of company owners -- poses a threat to nondiscrimination measures and potentially a wide range of laws protecting the interests of workers. Jindal declared that his order is “not about discrimination,” even though its clear intent is to give legal cover to companies, government officials, and others who discriminate against same-sex couples.

Louisiana does not currently give legal recognition to same-sex couples, but Jindal is concerned that the state’s ban on marriage equality may soon be struck down by the Supreme Court, a potential ruling which his order seems to be a legally questionable effort to pre-empt. Jindal should be asked to clarify exactly what actions his legislation is designed to “protect”: a courthouse clerk who refuses to process marriage license paperwork? Religious schools getting tax dollars under Jindal’s education policy refusing to accept children of gay parents? Catholic hospitals refusing to recognize the spousal or parental rights of gay couples during medical emergencies?   

Jindal’s “religious liberty” bill had been opposed by business and tourism leaders as well as civil rights groups. The New Orleans Times Picayune reports that the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Stephen Perry had called the bill “a radioactive, poisonous message.”

But Jindal’s primary audience is no longer his Louisiana constituents; it's right-wing activists nationwide. Jindal boasted about the executive order by stopping by the radio program hosted by Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, an anti-gay activist who once suggested that LGBT non-discrimination measures would lead to the Holocaust perpetrated against Christians.

Right-wing pundit and Iowa GOP activist Steve Deace reacted rapturously, proclaiming Jindal his “winner of the week” for standing up to “Republicrats.”

Jindal immediately stepped in and ordered that while he’s governor the state government is not going to be a tool of the Cultural Marxists’ Rainbow Jihad against religion — particularly Christianity….

This action by Jindal is an example of what will be required of the next president if he’s going to truly honor his oath of office to defend our Constitution against all enemies — “both foreign and domestic.”

Let’s face it, the vast majority of alleged conservatives won’t stand up to the Democrats. And almost none of them will stand up to the Republicrats. On perhaps the most important issue of them all — the First Amendment that allows us the freedom to peacefully and publicly stand on principle for everything else — Jindal has done both.

But he didn’t just stand up to them rhetorically, he actually did something about it. There are several potentially exciting presidential candidates this cycle. There’s even a couple that like Jindal have shown they will tell the Republicrats bleeding us dry to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine.

PFAW

Arkansas Governor Does Only a Partial Retreat on RFRA

Yesterday, the Arkansas legislature approved a so-called "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" bill similar to Indiana's RFRA. Today, the governor surprised people by rejecting the bill as written and asking for changes. As CNN reports:

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson says he does not plan to sign the religious freedom bill that sits on his desk right now, instead asking state lawmakers to make changes so the bill mirrors federal law.

The first-term Republican governor said he wants his state "to be known as a state that does not discriminate but understands tolerance."

While the requested change would remove some of the dangerous aspects of the bills that differentiated them from the federal version, it would still leave the door open to state-sanctioned discrimination in the name of religion.

The federal RFRA dates back to 1993, and neither its text nor its purpose empower anyone to bypass laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination. However, as PFAW Senior Fellow Elliot Mincberg has written, the Supreme Court drastically rewrote the law last year in its 5-4 Hobby Lobby decision:

[As Justice Ginsburg explained in her dissent,] the Court effectively rewrote RFRA so that it could be invoked by for-profit corporations, and so that the original law protecting individuals against a "substantial burden" on the exercise of religion was transformed to allow claims by a business owner that complying with a neutral law offended their religious beliefs in some way. Under the majority's view, Justice Ginsburg suggested, RFRA could be interpreted to "require exemptions" in cases where religious beliefs were used to justify actions that discriminated on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Pointedly, Justice Alito responded only that "prohibitions on racial discrimination" would be safe from a RFRA exemption claim, but said nothing about gender or LGBT status.

That's why Gov. Hutchinson's call for a bill that matches the federal RFRA does not solve the discrimination problem. A state law tracking the federal RFRA and passed after Hobby Lobby is far more likely to be interpreted by the courts along the same lines. This is especially so since the bill's supporters regularly cite their desire to "protect" businesspeople who are religiously offended by same-sex couples from serving them.

The Arkansas and Indiana RFRAs have features making them even more open to be used as vehicles for otherwise illegal discrimination than the federal RFRA as transmogrified by the Roberts Court. But if Gov. Hutchinson succeeds in getting a bill that matches the federal version, he still will not have accomplished his stated goal of making Arkansas "known as a state that does not discriminate."

PFAW

Gov. Pence's Claims Ignore Indiana "Religious Freedom" Law's History

As he has since signing Indiana's so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Governor Mike Pence today insisted that the law does not allow discrimination. As reported in the Indianapolis Star:

[Pence] stressed that RFRA was about "religious liberty, not discrimination" and emphasized that the law does not give anyone the right to turn away customers on religious grounds.

"This law does not give anyone the right to discriminate...This law does not give anyone the right to deny services," he said.

Let's rewind the tape to the legislative debate over the bill. Senate Amendment # 4 would have added a key provision to the bill that would have made Gov. Pence's words accurate.

This chapter does not apply to:

(1) IC 22-9-1 (Indiana civil rights law); or

(2) any state law or local ordinance that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

However, the state Senate defeated this amendment by a lopsided vote of 10-40.

The Indiana House was equally insistent that the bill not be amended to provide any protection to state and local anti-discrimination laws. House Amendment # 5 would have added the following text to the law:

For purposes of this chapter:

(1) the protection of civil rights; or

(2) the prevention of discrimination;

is a compelling government interest.

Unlike the Senate amendment, this would not have completely exempted anti-discrimination laws from attack under RFRA. Nevertheless, this more moderate effort to make it harder to bypass such laws was still too much for the House, which overwhelmingly rejected the amendment in a 31-60 vote.

It would be nice to think that Governor Pence was right, and that this law didn't open the door to discrimination. But that is exactly what the law does, and its history makes that even clearer.  If Pence wants to "clarify" that the state's RFRA law won't allow denial of service, he can point legislators to amendment language that would make that as clear as day.

PFAW

Georgia Pro-Discrimination Bill Exposed, But It Could Still Pass

While Georgia's misleadingly named Religious Freedom Restoration Act may still pass the state legislature before it adjourns, it had a major setback when its conservative supporters' true goal was exposed. Like similar bills being pushed across the country, it is masked as simply a measure defending religious liberty, but it is really a vehicle designed to give legal cover to discrimination. By a one-vote margin, the House Judiciary Committee amended the bill so it could not be used to trump anti-discrimination laws, with three Republicans joining all the committee's Democrats. The bill's supporters then voted to table the bill rather than advance a bill that no longer allowed discrimination.

But the bill isn't dead. Until the Georgia legislature adjourns on April 2, anything can happen. In fact, the House Judiciary Committee announced late Friday that it would resume considering the bill on Monday. But in some encouraging news, that meeting has been cancelled. As reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

A specially called meeting of the House Judiciary Committee set for Monday was cancelled, leaving the future of the ‘religious liberty' bill in doubt.

...

The back-and-forth on the bill comes as Indiana deals with the backlash from adopting a similar law that has led to calls of boycotts and the potential loss of tens of millions of dollars in tourism and economic development. Indiana Gov. Mike Spence on Sunday told ABC News the law is not about discrimination but refused to say whether it would permit a business owner to refuse service to someone with whom they disagree.

As Georgia legislators are learning, this is a bill that has the public's attention, and people are not happy with it. When the Judiciary Committee heard public testimony on the bill last week, far more people showed up than the committee chairman was willing to make time for. Among those who went to the state capitol to testify was Rev. Tim McDonald, senior pastor at First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, former President of Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta, and current co-chair of African American Ministers In Action at PFAW. He was ultimately unable to offer his testimony in person, but he submitted it in writing. Rev. McDonald wrote, in part:

Equality and basic rights should never yield to discrimination. But this bill would legalize discrimination, and it does so by distorting the concept of religious liberty.

Many other religious leaders here in Georgia have agreed and have opposed this bill. So have conservatives like former state attorney Michael Bowers, and businesses like Wal-Mart, which has opposed similar legislation in Arkansas.

It is clear that rather than fixing a problem, this bill would create problems, often for the most vulnerable among us. Handing people the right to use the mantle of religious liberty to harm others is wrong. My faith teaches me that I should speak out against proposals that could deny basic rights to others, especially when it's being done in the name of religion.

During the public testimony, bill supporters kept returning to one misleading talking point: Although the bill mirrors a federal RFRA that has been on the books for 20 years, as well as several longtime state RFRAs, opponents couldn't point to a case where the law was used to enable otherwise illegal discrimination. Rev. McDonald addressed this in his testimony:

[This bill threatens to allow discrimination] even though, and in large part because, the bill's language tracks the language of the federal RFRA. State courts are likely to follow the guidance of the United States Supreme Court in how to interpret this almost identical language. Unfortunately, with last June's 5-4 Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court gravely misinterpreted that federal law. Five Justices ruled, for the first time, that for-profit corporations can invoke the law, and they essentially excised from the statute the requirement that it can be triggered only by a substantial burden on actual religious exercise. Under Hobby Lobby, having your religious beliefs offended is enough. So a state court following the Hobby Lobby logic could easily equate a business owner's being religiously offended by a gay employee or a customer's "lifestyle choice" with a significant burden on the owner's religious liberty. That is why the bill transforms religious liberty protection from a shield into a sword.

Keep an eye out for this. Until the legislature adjourns, the bill can come back to life, and conservatives in Georgia could succeed in weaponizing religious liberty in their state as Indiana did last week.

PFAW

Alabama's Shame Grows with Bill to Make It Harder for Gays to Marry

In some parts of the world, government officials won't help you if you don't share their religious beliefs. Citizens seeking to be served by government employees have to go from office to office, experiencing the shame and frustration of being turned away by those whose salaries they pay.

Yesterday, Alabama took a step toward becoming such a place, to the delight of the far right.

The Alabama House passed the so-called "Freedom of Religion in Marriage Protection Act" by an overwhelming margin of 69-25 yesterday. Among its provisions is one stating that civil servants have the right to refuse to perform any civil marriage ceremony should they wish. As AL.com reported:

In session today, Rep. A.J. McCampbell, D-Livingston, asked [bill sponsor Jim] Hill: "Why all of a sudden has this become an issue?"

Hill replied: "I can't answer that, sir."

Really? It isn't hard to figure out:

Tears came to the eyes of Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, as she spoke against the bill on the House floor. Todd, the only openly gay legislator in the state, said the bill was drafted to discriminate against gay couples who want to marry.

"This is very hurtful to me as an openly gay person," she said.

Ever since a federal district judge ruled that Alabama's marriage ban violates the Constitution, the state has been a showcase of defiance. Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore violated the canons of judicial ethics in seeking to force government officials from complying with the ruling, prompting our affiliate PFAW Foundation to file a formal complaint with the Judicial Inquiry Commission. Because of Moore, Alabama quickly became a checkerboard where gay and lesbian Alabamans were locked out of full citizenship across vast swaths of the state based on the whims of local officials. The state supreme court then shut down marriages for same-sex couples across the state in a highly controversial ruling.

Now Alabama legislators are seeking to guarantee that even if the U.S. Supreme Court rules that lesbians and gays have the right to marry, it is a right they will not be able to exercise across vast swaths of Alabama, unless they can find a public servant whose religious beliefs do not include a vehement hostility to lesbian and gay equality. That this bill targets one group of people for second class citizenship cannot be seriously questioned. No one should be fooled for a moment that this has anything to do with religious liberty, a fundamental American value designed to be a shield from oppression, not a sword to harm others.

PFAW

PFAW Releases New Report on the Right's Efforts to Transform Religious Liberty from a Shield to a Sword

Last June, the Supreme Court gave certain for-profit corporations the right to deny women vitally important (and statutorily required) healthcare coverage that offends their employers' religious beliefs, claiming it was simply protecting the employers' religious liberty. Across the country, right wing extremists are seeking to empower individuals and business owners whose religious beliefs are offended by LGBT equality to exempt themselves from anti-discrimination laws – again, supposedly in the name of religious liberty. Conservative Christians aggressively seeking to deprive others of their legal rights regularly portray themselves as the victims of religious persecution.

People For the American Way has released a new report examining the many ways that religious liberty issues are increasingly coming up in public policy debates in communities across the nation. But this isn't religious liberty as it has been understood throughout our nation's history.

Authored by Senior Fellow Peter Montgomery, Religious Liberty: Shield or Sword? examines how the Far Right is working to transform this core American value from a shield protecting individuals' religious freedom into a sword that harms other people and undermines measures to promote the common good.

The report provides vital factual background and analysis to help readers better understand how religious freedom principles have traditionally been regarded, as well as how they are being twisted by a far right movement in an effort to reverse its fortunes as their substantive arguments are increasingly rejected by the American public. These distorting efforts come from conservative advocacy organizations, state and federal legislators, and even a narrow majority of the United States Supreme Court.

This report is an important tool to help understand and confront the Right in public policy debates across the country, as they increasingly seek to use religious liberty as a sword to deny rights to others, and as they continue to portray themselves as victims of religious persecution.

PFAW

Ginsburg Concurrence Is an Important Reminder on Religious Liberty

The Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in Holt v. Hobbs yesterday upholding the religious liberty claim of a Muslim prisoner who was prohibited by corrections officials from growing a half-inch beard. As noted in our Supreme Court term preview of Holt v. Hobbs, the case involves a federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA.

Similar to the better-known Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was at issue in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, RLUIPA is triggered when the government imposes a "substantial burden on the religious exercise" of a person confined to an institution. When that happens, the action can be upheld only if the government can demonstrate that the burden: "(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest."

In this case, especially since so many other prisons around the country allow inmates to grow half-inch beards without a security problem, few expected the prison system would win this case. And it didn't. The Court's ruling was written by Justice Alito, author of the Hobby Lobby opinion, and all the other Justices signed on.

Importantly, while Justice Ginsburg – the author of the Hobby Lobby dissent – joined the Court's opinion, she also wrote a separate concurrence to emphasize a critically important point. In its entirety, it reads:

Unlike the exemption this Court approved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., accommodating petitioner's religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner's belief. On that understanding, I join the Court's opinion. [internal citations removed]

The removed internal citations are to her Hobby Lobby dissent's discussion of how religious liberty has always been recognized as a shield to protect people's rights, not as a sword to deny others' rights. Fortunately, Holt v. Hobbs did not present an opportunity for the narrow five-person majority to continue their project, begun in Hobby Lobby, to wholly transform the concept of religious liberty. But Justice Ginsburg (joined by Justice Sotomayor) was right to remind us of the traditional meaning of that phrase in American society and law.

PFAW Foundation