Religious Liberty and the Right to Discriminate: How Privileging Religious Belief Endangers Civil Rights


Deference to religious belief, specifically Christianity, is deeply ingrained in American culture, so much so that arguments that would look suspiciously like discrimination, bigotry, and hate are not only excused but held up by our Supreme Court when coated in the veneer of religious liberty.

Such was the case with the recent, infamous Hobby Lobby decision where Justice Alito stated that sincere Christian beliefs about how contraception works are more important than both women’s basic right to access health-care without an employer dictating what type of medication they should use and the equally basic science behind how the objectionable forms of birth control work. Alito then continued, without a shred of irony, to say that,

this decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs. Nor does it provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice (emphasis added).

Women’s status as second class citizens in relation to religious belief is take for granted, as the natural state of affairs – of course denying women access to contraception via the health insurance they pay for isn’t discrimination.

It was a small leap then for religious institutions and organizations to use this ruling to target another group of people they are dedicated to hating and discriminating against under the guise of religious freedom, LGBT people. This was not surprising, though it is disheartening.

What was surprising, at least to me, and something that will, in the long run, be beneficial to those of us seeking equal rights under the law (not to mention changing socio-cultural norms to ones that embrace LGBT and women’s full humanity) is the reaction from civil rights groups to ENDA’s dangerous religious exemption. A growing list of civil liberties organizations, including the ACLU, Lambda Legal, and the Transgender Law Center, have withdrawn support because, in the words of a joint statement issued by the ACLU on July 8th,

ENDA’s discriminatory provision, unprecedented in federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination, could provide religiously affiliated organizations – including hospitals, nursing homes and universities – a blank check to engage in workplace discrimination against LGBT people. The provision essentially says that anti-LGBT discrimination is different – more acceptable and legitimate – than discrimination against individuals based on their race or sex.

For far too long religious belief has been an acceptable cover for discriminatory beliefs and actions. What is unacceptable in belief or practice if it stems from secular views is acceptable if it comes from a (judeo-christian) religious source. And, with characteristically short memories, a new generation of bigots use the language of tolerance and anti-discrimination to argue in favor of their right to discriminate against those who they deem sinful.

A typical example is Rick Warren’s statement regarding Hobby Lobby, made in 2013, where he appropriates the black civil rights movement by comparing Hobby Lobby’s suit to the Birmingham bus boycott. He conveniently ignores that fact that white churches were bastions of race-based hate using religious arguments to justify slavery and institutionalized bigotry against black people in the US.

It is vital that those of us fighting social justice battles learn the legacy of Christianity in the U.S. because current faith leaders will likely be the last to remind us of what Christianity as an institution has supported. Forgetting that history and ignoring the bigotry written into the bible is dangerous. It allows for history to be rewritten and for those of us in the present to take an ahistorical view of the Christian church and the dangers it poses. Regarding religious belief as untouchable will only lead to more decisions like Hobby Lobby that erroneously regard discrimination as a right, provided that the person/institution discriminating is religious or holds religious beliefs.

It seems that LGBT groups (as well as reproductive rights groups) are becoming more aware of the threat posed by religious exemption language and of the overall risk of treating religious belief as special and deserving of greater consideration. Hopefully, the Hobby Lobby decision will continue to serve as a catalyst to a wake-up call that has been a long time coming (in my estimation) in regards to the threat deference to religious belief and religious exemptions pose for vulnerable populations like women and LGBT people.

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