New Report Debunks the Myth of ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills: They’re a ‘License to Discriminate’

· Updated on May 28, 2018

As Georgia considers legislation allowing faith-based adoption agencies to turn away LGBTQ people, a new report claims these bills are nothing but a front for discrimination.

Currently, eight states have “religious liberty” legislation on the books allowing people of faith to deny services to LGBTQ individuals if providing them would conflict with their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” State Bill 375, which passed the Georgia House last week by a 35-19 vote, would prevent the state from taking “adverse action” against adoption and foster care providers which refuse placement to same-sex couples.

Proponents believe SB 375, also known as the Keep Faith in Adoption and Foster Care Act, is necessary to ensure agencies’ Constitutional rights aren’t violated.

“Just because you are a faith-based organization doesn’t mean you have to check your faith at the door and cannot participate in government programs,” claimed Republican Sen. William Ligon, as the Raleigh-based news station WRAL originally reported.

But a new survey from Human Rights Watch finds that few “religious liberty” bills reflect a “serious attempt” to balance the concerns of people of faith and the LGBTQ community.

“While these exemptions are almost always couched in the language of religious freedom or religious liberty, they directly and indirectly harm LGBTQ people in a variety of ways,” the advocacy group claims in the recently released report “All We Want is Equality.”

“Some laws enable and embolden businesses and service providers to refuse to serve LGBTQ people, compelling LGBTQ people to invest additional time, money, and energy to find willing providers,” the report continues. “Others simply give up on obtaining the goods or services they need. More insidiously, they give LGBTQ people reason to expect discrimination before it even occurs.”

Researchers spoke to queer and trans people living in states impacted by “religious freedom” bills. Respondents claimed this harmful legislation fuels a climate hostile to the very existence of LGBTQ individuals.

Brandiilyne Mangum-Dear and and her wife live in Mississippi, home to the nation’s most extreme anti-LGBTQ law. House Bill 1523, which was allowed to go into effect last year, allows sweeping discrimination under the guise of religion. In addition to permitting bias against queer and trans people in virtually all areas of life, critics noted it allows for discrimination against single mothers and unmarried couples.

HB 1523 even permits an employer to fire a woman for having short hair or wearing pants.

“You’re being treated with disrespect, as a second-class citizennot even a citizen, an outsider,” says Dear, who works as a pastor in Laurel, Miss. “And after a while, that begins to tear a person down, to hurt them emotionally and spiritually. Rejection is hard for everyone, and we get it over and over.”

Ryan Thoreson, a researcher in the LGBTQ rights program at Human Rights Watch, claims the burden these bills place on queer and trans people is “unnecessary.”

“There are mechanisms under U.S. law to balance the conscience of religious objectors of LGBTQ equality,” he says, pointing to the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) which have already been enacted in 21 states. “What’s striking is that it’s not clear these bills are necessary or that they try to balance the competing interests at play. They disregard the consequences they have on LGBTQ people.”

As originally intended, RFRA bills are designed to ensure the government doesn’t unfairly hamper the free exercise of religion.

A classic example is Minnesota v. Hershberger, a 1990 case over a requirement that slow-moving transport display a reflective orange triangle to address safety concerns on state highways. The Amish claimed that such a gesture would violate their religion’s prohibition on bright colors as “loud” and “worldly” and offered to use a silver triangle in their horse-drawn buggies as a compromise, which was denied.

The Minnesota Supreme Court subsequently ruled that the government agency had violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. In order to regulate actions motivated by faith, the state must demonstrate a compelling interest, and that standard had not been met.

Kasey Suffredini, president of strategy at Freedom for All Americans, claims RFRA bills are intended to apply the concept of religious freedom in the “narrowest way possible.”

“[RFRA laws] create some leeway so a judge can take into account what the interest for the religious objector is and the consequences for people who are turned away,” Suffredini tells INTO in a phone interview. “These new exemptions are just blanket exemptions. They give carte blanche to the religious objector without any mechanism for people who are denied service or turned away.”

“The goal of these isn’t to protect religious freedom but to rollback and prevent the advancement of LGBTQ rights,” he adds.

Both Suffredini and Thoreson pointed out that people of faith in states which have passed the recent wave of “religious freedom” bills are unable to meet that standard. It’s already legal to discriminate against queer and trans people in states like Alabama, South Dakota, and Texas, all of which passed anti-LGBTQ adoption laws last year.

Of the eight states which allow faith-based exemptions in regards to sexual orientation and gender identity, not a single one has passed a statewide nondiscrimination law. Many already have anti-LGBTQ statutes on the books.

These bills actually do the opposite of what they claim, Thoreson says. He calls them a “license to discriminate.”

“It’s not lost on people that these laws passed right in the wake of marriage equality,” he claims. “A number of people we spoke with emphasized that the state was sending a message. Even though the Supreme Court said they had these rights, their state was going to do everything they could to prevent them from exercising those rights.”

These bills are yet another reminder to LGBTQ people that they “aren’t equal in the United States,” Thoreson adds.

Georgia’s “religious freedom” bill now heads to the state’s House of Representatives, where it awaits consideration. Should the anti-LGBTQ adoption legislation pass, celebrities like Billy Eichner and Dustin Lance Black have called for a boycott of the state.

Image via Getty

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