Discrimination Is Not Religious Freedom

by Rev . Irene Monroe

As recently as January of 2014, the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) filed a complaint against Fontbonne Academy, a religious college prep school in Milton, MA, when the school fired Matt Barrett—after offering him employment at the school as Food Services Director.

Matt Barrett was fired after he stated on a form that his spouse was a male.  

“If I’m planning and making meals for students, I’m not sure what my being gay has to do with the job,” Matt says. “I’ve always done well in my work, and was excited about working at Fontbonne. All I did was fill out the form honestly.”

The “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” (RFRA) springing up across the country are a backlash to the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage and represent a growing fear of what will happen when the Supreme Court legalizes it nationwide. They are a perversion of the First Amendment in our Constitution and our history of religious freedom in the United States.

These bills are called “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts,” but don’t be fooled. These lawmakers are looking to codify LGBTQ discrimination.

This month the Georgia Senate, with a vote of 37-15, approved their controversial RFRA (House Bill 1023). The bill doesn’t want the state’s Christian religious conservatives, fundamentalists and evangelicals to “substantially burden” their personal religious practices and beliefs. What, you may ask, could possibly be such a burden to Christians in Georgia that a state law is necessitated?

“Burden,” according the bill, is defined as:

“Burden” means any government action or implementation or application of any law, including, but not limited to, state and local laws, ordinances, rules, regulations, and policies, whether statutory or otherwise, that directly or indirectly constrains, inhibits, curtails, or denies the exercise of religion by any person or that directly or indirectly pressures any person to engage in any action contrary to that person’s exercise of religion, including, but not limited to, withholding benefits, assessing criminal, civil, or administrative penalties, and exclusion from government programs or access to government facilities.

However, in practice this definition has not been all inclusive.

As of right now the only religious folk lawmakers are protecting from a “substantial burden” are Christians. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and other non-Christian Georgians don’t merit protection. As a matter-of-fact, these demographic groups—along with atheists and LGBTQ people—can easily be subject to egregious forms of discrimination, bigotry and hate crimes under the guise of religious freedom.

One of our most important values is treating others the way we want to be treated, and creating new laws that go against that principle hurts us all. 

For example, the Atlanta-based family-owned fast food fried chicken chain Chick-fil-A could, with the state’s sanctioning of House Bill 1023, openly and legally discriminate in their hiring practices of Jews, divorcees or LGBTQ people based on their Southern Baptist beliefs.

In June 2012 controversy arose when it was disclosed that the company’s founder S. Truett Cathy and his family donated millions of dollars to groups across the country opposing same-sex marriage. S. Truett Cathy through The WinShape Foundation, the chain’s charitable organization, flatly barred same-sex couples from participating in the foundation’s marriage retreats.

“Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” like the one proposed in Georgia are springing up around the country. The claims looks like this in justifying denying services to same-sex couples:

A family-owned bakery in Gresham, Oregon called “Sweet Cakes by Melissa” wanted to “practice their Constitutional right to religious freedom;” a florist in Washington state wanted to maintain her “relationship with Jesus;” and a photography company in New Mexico would “gladly serve gays and lesbians” by taking portraits. But photographing same-sex marriages or commitment ceremonies would “require them to create expression conveying messages that conflict with their religious beliefs.”

Some of these laws even allow government employees to decide whether they want to carry out the law. In same-sex marriage equality states (like North Carolina) state judges, state employers like justices of the peace can refuse to officiate same-sex nuptials and private businesses can refuse services to same-sex couples citing it violates their religious belief.

Religion should not be used as an excuse to discriminate or refuse to follow the law.

Following the teachings of one’s faith is important, but that doesn’t mean we should impose our beliefs on others. However, that is exactly what these expanded exemptions are allowing.

A movement is afoot in state legislatures across the country to disenfranchise LGBTQ Americans.

Freedom of religion is important; that’s why it is already protected by the First Amendment in the Constitution. But the rule of law is also important, and we cannot just allow people to decide to refuse to follow laws they simply do not like.

Photo via flickr user shizzy0