Views & Voices

Waking the sleeping beast of religious liberty





Something remarkable happened in the run up to the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Hobby Lobby vs. Burwell. A movement was born. A potentially historic movement that does not yet know its name — but which may yet bring the light of hope to a darkening political landscape.

The Supreme Court ultimately threw out historic understandings of the right of individual conscience — what we generally call religious freedom — by extending the right of conscience for employers to claim broad exceptions from laws and regulations on the basis of their religious beliefs.

The decision magnified and encouraged the notion that among other things, religious exemptions from the law justify discrimination against LGBTQ people.

The best known of these exemptions have been bills introduced in state legislatures under the rubric of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Proposed RFRAs (pronounced rif-ruhs) in the past year have included provisions that would allow anyone to refuse to do business with, or provide services to, same-sex couples by citing religious beliefs.

The bills cover private businesses and individuals and even government workers. They would bar same-sex couples from suing anyone who denies them such things as adoption rights, employment, food service, hotel rooms, and social services—as long as the person doing the denying claims a religious objection to homosexuality.

The only state where such a bill became law in 2014 was Mississippi. But the RFRAs have been introduced a dozen other states. It is a trend that will continue.

The model bill was introduced in Arizona under the guidance of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a leading Christian Right legal strategy group. The bill passed the House in Michigan before it was stopped by the state Senate.

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There are plans to introduce a similar bill in Indiana and other states in 2015.

The conservative leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and their allies on the evangelical Protestant Christian Right anticipated the broad advancement of civil rights for LGBTQ people, and even the successes of the marriage equality movement, and so made their redefined version of religious freedom the centerpiece of their political programs beginning with the 2009 Manhattan Declaration.

But one progressive policy veteran thinks the Christian Right’s campaign may “backfire.”

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