Out of the Closet

The Backlash to the Anti-Gay Backlash: “Religious Freedom” Bills Fail, As More People See What They’re Really About

An Oklahoma state representative proposes that discriminators out themselves. Result? The whole bill was shelved.

03.23.15 9:15 AM ET

The anti-gay backlash backlash is here.

In the wake of advances for LGBT equality, conservatives across the country have rallied to pass “religious freedom” bills that would allow people and businesses to discriminate if they have a religious justification for doing so.

The poster children of this campaign are religious wedding photographers and cake bakers. But the real impact is far more serious: huge corporations like Hobby Lobby denying benefits, services, and recognition to same-sex families; Catholic hospitals disallowing longtime, same-sex spouses to visit one another; huge university systems firing janitors, basketball coaches, and secretaries because they are gay.

And then there are the unintended consequences: wife- and child-abusers offering religion as a defense; Jews being turned away from hotels; and more absurd consequences like Satanists advertising their religion in state capitol buildings.

At first, these advances flew below the radar. When I first covered this issue two years ago, it was still somewhat arcane, lost in a haze of legalese. “Religious liberty” is a good thing, right? No one knew how to pronounce “RFRA.” (Riff-ra, if you please.)

But then came the Hobby Lobby decision, and the Arizona “Turn the Gays Away” fiasco, and increasing attention to “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” (RFRAs) in Mississippi (passed), Georgia (going down to the wire), and Indiana (same).

Now, signs of a backlash against the backlash are cropping up.

The heavily funded, far-right-written-and-coordinated cascade of RFRAs—what I believe I christened RFRA Madness—has run into serious opposition.

In West Virginia, a bill identical to one that passed in Arkansas, which would forbid any municipality from passing anti-discrimination laws, died in committee.

In Michigan, a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” failed late last year, though it may have another shot this year.

Perhaps most intriguing is Oklahoma, where yet another “Religious Freedom Act” died in the state House. It’s not known exactly why Republicans shelved the bill, but it may be due to one of the most ingenious counter-efforts in the country, led by Democrat Emily Virgin.

State Representative Virgin’s idea? Require any business that won’t provide services to LGBT people to state so publicly. In the language of the amendment, “Any person not wanting to participate in any of the activities set forth in subsection A of this section based on sexual orientation, gender identity or race of either party to the marriage shall post notice of such refusal in a manner clearly visible to the public in all places of business, including websites.”

Said Virgin on Facebook, “This would save same-sex couples the trouble and embarrassment of going into that business just to be turned away.”

This, if I may say so, is brilliant. (The idea came in consultations between Virgin, the ACLU of Oklahoma, and the state advocacy group Freedom Oklahoma.) On the surface, yes, Virgin’s rationale makes sense. But we all know what would really happen if Chick-Fil-A or Hobby Lobby posted such a sign: outrage. Virgin’s amendment would act as a kind of public shaming for businesses who want to turn gays, blacks, Jews, or anyone else away.

To be sure, many businesses might display their bigotry as a badge of honor—as Chick-Fil-A did. They might also benefit from doing so, at least in the short term.

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But those Instagram pictures are going to be around for a long time. And in 20 years, they’re going to look a lot like “Whites Only” signs.

To many people, they already do. The fact is, while public opinion is still divided on same-sex marriage (about 55-45 in favor), it’s not on nondiscrimination. Over 75 percent of Americans believe that you shouldn’t be fired for being gay, and while they might sympathize with an individual baker or florist, they’re not going to be keen on national chains saying “No Gays Allowed.”

Again, it’s not known if Virgin’s proposed amendment killed the “Religious Freedom” bill in Oklahoma. But something did.

And then there are our friends at the Satanic Temple, eager to take these religious liberty provisions to their logical conclusions. In Michigan, they’ve proposed an amendment much like Virgin’s, and even printed some handy fill-in signs for bigots who want to get a head start. There and elsewhere (including, best of all, Florida), they’ve successfully installed Satanic “holiday displays,” making use of Christmas-display laws that shrink the scope of the First Amendment.

The Satanic Temple (not one organization, but many) is doing street theater, of course. Most likely, they are preaching to the already-Satanically converted. But they have also succeeded at highlighting the unintended consequences of the new “religious liberty.”

More seriously, we are now beginning to tease fact from fiction when it comes to “religious liberty.” Individual florists, bakers, photographers, innkeepers—these are sympathetic poster children.

But how about multibillion-dollar businesses, hospitals, malls, and schools? How about the doctor who refused to treat the child of same-sex parents? How about adoption agencies that receive federal money, but still won’t place children with legally married same-sex couples? Or the football coach who gets fired when someone heard him mention his husband?

These are the real faces of so-called “religious freedom.” And as their stories become better known, the scare quotes around that term get thicker and thicker.

It’s telling that Oklahoma dropped its “Religious Freedom” bill when a legislator demanded that discriminators make themselves known to the public. Like repressed gays, prejudice has to hide in the closet.