Christian Right issues anti-LGBT manuals teaching legal discrimination

Christian Right issues anti-LGBT manuals teaching legal discrimination
AP (File)
AP (File)

Christian Right leaders may be assuming they’ll lose their battle against equality for LGBTQ people, and they are hunkering down for what they foresee as a long siege against conservative Christian churches, businesses, and organizations.

Major Christian Right legal agencies have begun issuing manuals for conservative churches and other organizations to inoculate themselves against private lawsuits and government enforcement of civil rights laws.

The national Christian Right legal network Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, one of the primary groups behind the legislative agenda to redefine religious freedom into an affirmative right to discriminate) joined forces with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention to issue one such handbook, and the Texas-based Liberty Institute has issued a similar manual.

The ADF and Southern Baptist handbook (titled, “Protecting Your Ministry from Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Lawsuits: A Legal Guide for Southern Baptist and Evangelical Churches, Schools, and Ministries”) anticipates needing to “engage a hostile social and political culture… amid the gathering spiritual darkness.”

The Liberty Institute sees it as “not a matter of if but when religious institutions will be faced with damaging, anti-religious legal attacks.”  To prepare, the Institute advises institutions from churches and synagogues to fraternities and for-profit corporations to “religify.”  [Emphases in the original.]

Both manuals urge religification by revising all of their institutional documents, from employee job descriptions to facility rental agreements. Workers and volunteers are reclassified under a broad redefinition of “ministry”; and institutional functions are cast specifically in terms of religious doctrine. The goal is to be seen by the courts as qualifying for broad “ministerial exemptions” from the law in as many ways as possible.

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These Christian Right legal groups are drawing on recent Supreme Court cases as sources for girding these institutions’ legal loins for the supposed coming siege.

They point particularly to the 2012 case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which stopped a disability discrimination complaint by a kindergarten teacher, declaring that the church employed her in a capacity of ministry, and therefore was exempt from employment discrimination laws.

Another pivotal judicial turn is the 2014 decision in Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. & Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Burwell, which for the first time endowed “closely held” for-profit corporations with religious rights under the First Amendment. Taken together, the decisions have opened the door to a wide range of religious exemptions from civil rights and labor laws.

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These two culture war defense manuals are designed to maximize opportunities presented by these (and other) court decisions.  

Because the Supreme Court held in Hosanna-Tabor that the ministerial exception does not apply solely to persons traditionally thought of as ministers, churches may now be able to cover most—if not all—church employees under the widening umbrella of the definition of ministry by making them more “minister-like” on paper.

The manuals urge, for example, tailoring job descriptions to try to show how they are a manifestation of ministry. The Southern Baptist manual suggests assigning “… employees duties that involve ministerial, teaching, or other spiritual qualifications – duties that directly further the religious mission.

For example, if a church receptionist answers the phone, the job description might detail how the receptionist is required to answer basic questions about the church’s faith, provide religious resources, or pray with callers.”

While the courts may not buy the idea that someone who answers the phone can be reasonably construed as part of ministry in the legal sense, this is the kind of thinking that permeates the conservative Christian world.

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The Baptists claim that a reason for these measures is that malevolent intentions lurk behind the passage of local LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinances.

These laws “are not designed for the innocent purpose of ensuring all people receive basic services,” the Baptists claim. “Rather, their practical effect is to legally compel Christians to accept, endorse, and even promote messages, ideas, and events that violate their faith.”

The Baptist manual avers that religification cannot inoculate institutions from “all attacks by marriage counterfeits and those advocating for complete sexual license.”   But it concludes that these measures might place an organization in a “more defensible legal position should it face a lawsuit for discrimination.”

These manuals demonstrate that Christian Right leaders of the culture war intend to fight LGBTQ Rights and marriage equality in the states, in the towns and cities, and in many kinds of institutions, no matter what the federal government and the courts may say.


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