Culture wars, gay rights movement transforms the politics of religious liberty

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Opponents of same-sex marriage protest outside a Miami courtroom on July 2, 2014, where a hearing on a challenge to the state's gay marriage bam was underway.J Pat Carter, AP

Opponents of same-sex marriage protest outside a Miami courtroom on July 2, 2014, where a hearing on a challenge to the state’s gay marriage bam was underway.

Smaller-scale religious liberty cases continue to arise, over issues such as wearing a Muslim veil in a driver’s license photo or a Sikh turban to work.

But the loudest cries over religious freedom are coming from the conservative leaders of major religious groups, especially when equal rights for gays and lesbians are at stake. In many state legislatures, bills on recognizing same-sex marriage have been held up – or killed – over disagreements about the breadth of the religious opt-out.

President Barack Obama recently was pressured by groups seeking or opposing a broad new religious accommodation in an executive order on job protection for gay and transgender employees of the federal government or federal contractors.

The president did not add an exemption, but left in place a provision that allows faith groups to hire and fire based on religious identity. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned the executive order as “extreme.”

Cathleen Kaveny, a Boston College professor of law and theology, said many Americans perceive reactions like these, and demands for exemptions, as an attempt by “losers in the culture war to hold onto a position” that broader society has generally rejected.

“If you lose a political battle, do you get a second bite at the apple – that my religious freedom has been violated?” Kaveny said. “The context has shifted.”

So has the rhetoric. Compromises that resolved many religious liberty disputes in the past seem impossible to reach in the current climate. On gay rights especially, groups see the other side as advocating something deeply immoral and both sides see a moral imperative for an all-out win.

It is common now for conservative pastors to vow they would go to jail rather than comply with a law they consider contrary to their beliefs. Gay rights’ supporters, meanwhile, have come to see religious liberty complaints as cover for bigotry.

“We know that conservatives will continue to market their prejudices under the guise of religious freedom,” said the Rev. Nancy Wilson, head of the Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination formed as a refuge for gay Christians. “Everyone loves religious liberty, but we dare not confuse sincere prejudice with sincere religion.”

Religious exemptions have always had their critics and controversies, but until recently, Americans generally leaned toward accommodating faith groups, even at times when the beliefs in question were considered unpopular, such as religious objections to wartime military service. Exemptions can be found in thousands of laws and regulations nationwide.

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