Call It What It Is

Religious Freedom? Nope, Just Plain Old Discrimination

Conservatives can’t stop gay marriage. But they can stop laws that prevent discrimination. And in Indiana and elsewhere, they’re succeeding.

03.25.15 9:15 AM ET

Religious conservatives have lost their battle over gay marriage. Most will even admit it. The clock is ticking down to April 28, when the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments for and against it—and by the end of June, they will have ruled on the right of every American to a civil marriage to the person of their choosing, regardless of gender. Although a “no gay marriage” ruling is possible, almost no one believes the Supreme Court will rule against the civil right to marriage.

Majority support for gay marriage is to be found in virtually every demographic in society. But the minority who still opposes it does so with vigor and conviction. The Roman Catholic hierarchy (not the people in the pews) and conservative Evangelicals continue to look for ways to express their disdain and condemnation for gay or lesbian couples who want to be married or who have been married. The new strategy is to do state-by-state what has been impossible nationally. Bills are popping up all over the country in state legislatures with what conservatives hope will be their effective (and legal) defense against the rising tide of acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

Indiana is a good case in point. On Monday, the Indiana House of Representatives passed a bill that would exempt individuals and companies from non-discrimination rulings by the courts—based on their religious beliefs. A similar bill was passed earlier by the Indiana Senate, and once the two are reconciled, Republican Governor Mike Pence has indicated he will sign it. This legislation, like its sister bills in other state legislatures, is based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) bill passed by the U.S. Congress in 1993. Many states have their own RFRAs, which, like the federal one, prevent any law which substantially burdens a person’s free expression of religion. (This legislation figured heavily into the Hobby Lobby case.)

If this legislation becomes law, anyone who disagrees with any non-discrimination legislation or court rulings would be allowed, based on their religious beliefs, to disregard the provisions of that non-discrimination protection.

The multiple ways in which such legislation is problematic are stunning. First, this would open the floodgates for citizens/corporations to exempt themselves from all kinds of laws, merely by claiming that it violates their religious beliefs. Now, we are presumably not just talking about your common, everyday, vanilla, mainstream religions (think Methodists, Presbyterians, Unitarians, Reform and Conservative Jews).  Such a law would, presumably, also protect members of the Westboro Baptist Church with its “God hates Fags” approach; the crazy, renegade Mormon man and his 25 wives; Satan worshippers; and Scientologists. Almost anything passes for “religion” in this country, and there would be no end to the appeals for exemption following certain laws based on the tenets of one’s religion, no matter how small and no matter how outside the mainstream that religion.

However, religionists don’t have to be crazy or on the fringes of society to wreak havoc on those they disdain. In debating the bill, Representative Bruce Borders (R-Jasonville) cited an anesthesiologist who refused to anesthetize a patient because the procedure for which his services were needed was an abortion—all due to his religious beliefs about the sinfulness of that procedure. A Roman Catholic pharmacist could refuse to fill a prescription for physician-prescribed birth control, citing her church’s objection to any kind of artificial birth control. A Southern Baptist pharmacist could refuse to fill a prescription for Truvada, the Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) drug used by gay men (and others) to lessen their risk for being infected with HIV, claiming his church condemns the “gay lifestyle,” by which he means, apparently, promiscuous and profligate sex. 

It is difficult for me to understand how this is not akin to the fervently held religious beliefs that the races should not “mix” in marriage, and the anti-miscegenation laws that emanated from those beliefs. Of course, in 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down those laws as unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia. How is this any different from a 1960s lunch counter owner denying service to African Americans because of his religious beliefs (widely held at the time) that “Negroes” were lesser human beings and citizens than white folks? 

Taken to their logical and extreme conclusion, such laws could allow someone to ask to be exempted from meeting the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, if that person’s religion believed (as in much of the Old Testament) that physical infirmities were the result of the afflicted person’s sin (or that of his parents), and “my religion condemns sin rather than cooperating with it.”

But these debates and legislation are not fueled by the religious adherent’s condemnation of sin. Chances are, the florist who refuses to provide flowers for a gay wedding does not deny service to a bride who is on her second or third marriage. Jesus is silent about gay marriage, but roundly and emphatically condemns remarriage after divorce. The photographer who refuses to take pictures for a lesbian marriage (because it is against God’s will) should also decline to photograph a lavish and ostentatiously expensive wedding (Jesus talks a lot about the sinful nature of greed). If this were seriously about not serving sinful people, then obese people would be turned away from fast-food outlets as obviously living the sinful “lifestyle” of a glutton. If this were really about condemning sin, then service would be denied to all sinners, not just a particular sin among a particular, targeted group.

Make no mistake: These legislative bills, like the one about to become law in Indiana, are about exempting some people from having to comply with non-discrimination laws already in place for LGBT people, as well as pre-empting and forestalling any efforts to put such protections in place. This is old-fashioned discrimination all dressed up in ecclesiastical vestments and “religious freedom” language. But it is still discrimination, pure and simple, against a targeted group of fellow citizens. No amount of cloaking such legislation in the garb of “freedom of religion” is going to turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this article indicated that anti-LGBT marriage bills were drafted with the help of ALEC (the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council). This was incorrect; ALEC says it does not have a position on LGBT marital issues. The Daily Beast regrets this error.

The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, D.C., and the retired IX Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. Follow him on Twitter @BishopGRobinson.