The courts once sought a balance between peoples’ right to freely exercise their faith or philosophy and their right to be free from government-sponsored indoctrination. Recently, however, instead of recognizing that government support of religion violates our Constitution’s First Amendment Establishment Clause, the courts are changing their jurisprudence to assert that any hesitancy to provide government support of religion is some kind of illegal discrimination against religion. That’s opening the doors to taxpayer-funded vouchers for religious schools, public dollars funding proselytization, and government symbols that favor one religious view over others.
Furthermore, when there’s a conflict between religious rights, and other civil and human rights (especially LGBTQ+ rights), the courts are deciding that religious rights matter more. That’s leading to LGBTQ+ folks (and potentially many others) getting denied public accommodation services. Combined with other court decisions (like Citizens United), businesses are allowed to deny support for reproductive rights to their employees and treat people differently because of the business owners’ sincerely held religious viewpoints — however bigoted those might be.
The Equality Act was introduced to add protections for LGBTQ+ individuals from discrimination because there no federal laws explicitly protect them and only 21 states passed bills that affirm the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals. Meanwhile, at least two dozen anti-LGBTQ+ bills were proposed in 2021, many of which target transgender youth. The Equality Act’s protections, overwhelmingly supported by Americans, prompted harsh criticism from the Religious Right and other conservatives who claim they undermine religious freedoms.
The original intent of religious liberty is to support freedom for all, which is different from the weaponized version that’s skewed toward Christian conservatism that we see today. And only recently, within the past few decades, has the concept of religious liberty become politicized and largely misused as a defense for prejudice.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), in an effort to further protect religious liberties against interference from the government. RFRA may have had the right intentions, but it is too often misused to carve out special rights for religion where they are not needed or helpful. We’re seeing this argument used, not only against the Equality Act but on the state level as well, through an onslaught of legislation, such as rejecting certain families for child welfare or allowing employees to opt-out of diversity and inclusion trainings.
With the rise in Christian nationalism, religious freedom has developed a false sense of absolutism among some, which is a dangerous and misconceived notion. The government must ensure that the rights of some, no matter how deeply valued, do not infringe on the rights of others. And although it is important to protect our religious freedoms, it does not mean that religion trumps all other inherent rights or can be allowed to harm others. It’s hypocrisy for religious groups to claim that bills like the Equality Act are an attack on rights, since their attempt to claim the right to discriminate denies the rights of others. Such a skewed Christian nationalist definition of religious liberty (not even shared by most Christians) is morally wrong.
Going forward we can correct the misinterpretation of RFRA and get back on track. The Do No Harm Act is currently pending in Congress and directly addresses the problem of religious freedom laws that undermine civil rights protections. House Education and Labor Committee Chair Bobby Scott (D-VA), who introduced the bill on behalf of 102 original co-sponsors, explained, “The Do No Harm Act simply posits that RFRA cannot be used to limit access to health care, deny services supported by taxpayer dollars, or undermine the Civil Rights Act or other anti-discrimination protections. Congress must take this critical step to ensure no one can weaponize religious freedom to erode our fundamental civil and legal rights.”
Americans are entitled to the right to religious belief and expression, as well as the guarantee that the government won’t favor one religion over the other. But religious practice should not unduly affect the public good, like meeting in-person without masks during a pandemic; or violating the inherent rights of others, such as LGBTQ+ individuals. That’s why we should respect each other and hold our government accountable to protect our inherent liberties as citizens. Passing legislation like the Equality Act and the Do No Harm Act can get our country and our ideals of religious liberty back on track.
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