"Religious Freedom"

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After marriage equality became the law of the land, many LGBT people breathed a sigh of relief. We could marry. We had fun Pride parades. We had Ellen and RuPaul’s Drag Race and Orange Is the New Black. The future looked bright.

But the truth is that attacks on our basic rights have been ramping up since long before same-sex couples gained the freedom to marry in all 50 states. These attacks are as old as our movement, but they are dressed now in a new outfit. Now discriminators are claiming victimhood themselves, saying that LGBT people are attacking their “religious freedom” by existing openly.

In 2012, Laurel and Rachel Bowman-Cryer, together 11 years and foster parents to two girls, were planning on getting married. In January 2013, Rachel went with her mother to a wedding cake tasting at Sweetcakes by Melissa in a suburb of Portland. When he heard the wedding was for a lesbian couple, Aaron Klein, co-owner of the shop with his wife, Melissa, said, “We don’t do same-sex weddings” and called the couple’s relationship an “abomination.” Bowman filed a complaint. Aaron Klein posted the complaint on his Facebook page and went on a right wing talk show. The couple started receiving death threats. “Can’t wait to see you die and go to hell,” one message said.
In 2015, Krista and Jami, received a note from their pediatrician: “After much prayer following your prenatal, I felt that I would not be able to develop the personal patient-doctor relationships that I normally do with my patients.” Thus they found themselves with their six-day old infant in the office of a doctor they had never even met.

The claim is that the daily activity of LGBT people—from seeking medical help to ordering wedding cakes and more—is not just offensive to someone’s religious beliefs, but actively curtailing their right to exercise their religion.

Calling this kind of bigotry “religious freedom” is smart branding. But the label is an Orwellian use of language that smooths over its real intent. It is part of an alternate reality of alternative facts where white people are oppressed, immigrants are criminals and people who discriminate are the ones being discriminated against.

Religious freedom—a core value of our country since its founding—has been weaponized.

“A more accurate term is ‘religious exemption’ or ‘religious refusal,’” says Jennifer Pizer, Law and Policy Director at Lambda Legal. These new attacks, she explains, come in tandem with our community’s growing expectation of equal treatment in the marketplace. “As it became clear we were going to win marriage equality, we started to see a new category of wedding-related discrimination.”

Suddenly some cake-makers and florists and dress designers have had to confront their own prejudices against same-sex couples celebrating weddings. Some in the wedding-services industry have re-examined their own biases and evolved, while others seem, well, hellbent, on going down in history as holding abhorrent attitudes as those who condemned interracial couples in the name of religion.

And they have plenty of right-wing Christian legal groups with names like the Alliance Defending Freedom ready to swoop in and help them fight the evolution towards more enlightened views.

ADF was behind Masterpiece Cakeshop, in which the U.S. Supreme Court issued a limited, fact-specific ruling that the Colorado civil rights agency violated the religious rights of a Denver baker who refused to sell a same-sex couple a wedding cake.

“Of course they’re free to discriminate in their churches and social clubs. The Constitution absolutely protects them. But if they are operating a business that the state regulates to protect the public, then they must follow the law.”
—  Jennifer Pizer, Law and Policy Director, Lambda Legal


Thanks to our current administration, this religion-couched anti-LGBT agenda is increasingly taking hold on the national stage.

In May 2017, President Trump issued an executive order announcing a new priority of certain conservative Christian religious values over other public policies and directing the Department of Justice to “develop new rules” to afford maximum protection to people who feel as though their religion is burdened by federal law.

In 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions did just that, releasing guidance instructing all federal agencies to give lenience to staff, federal contractors and grantees who want to exempt themselves from federal laws, rules and regulations based on religious beliefs.

Then, in January of this year, the Office for Civil Rights within HHS formed a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division. Its stated purpose is to protect health care providers who refuse to provide services that contradict their moral or religious beliefs. It was an invitation to discriminate, putting the future of health care for LGBT people— a group already facing significant challenges in the medical community— at risk.

Considering this administration’s cast of characters, it’s not hard to worry just how religious-exemption policies may be used. Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is a guy who compared marriage for samesex couples to bestiality and pedophilia, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded the Obama-era guidance urging Title IX protections for transgender students.

And, of course, this administration’s vice president, Mike Pence, as governor in Indiana in 2015, signed a bill allowing individuals and companies to defend themselves legally if they feel their exercise of religion is “substantially burdened.”

“Calling this kind of bigotry ‘religious freedom’ is smart branding. But the label is an Orwellian use of language.”


Religious exemption demands go far beyond wedding cakes and flowers. Potential federal permission to turn away LGBT people from health care services, for example, paints a very dark picture.

“Religious exemption is the greatest threat to the LGBT community since HIV,” says David Garcia, director of policy at the Los Angeles LGBTQ Center, who worries his group might see a surge of new service requests. The center is the largest of its kind in the world, with a $107 million budget and eight facilities, serving 42,000 clients a month.

“As doctors refuse to treat, we could continue to see increases because the community is not receiving services, so they just come here,” he says. “Our transgender care services and clinics are already waitlisted. The same thing could be said for our senior services. The 100 units in Triangle Square, our new senior living facility, already have a three-year wait list.”

Our community has always strived to take care of our own. But we also need to rely on public services and funds, just like everyone. “We can’t provide health care to everyone who lives in the D.C. metropolitan region,” says Daniel Bruner, senior director of policy at Whitman-Walker Health Clinic in Washington, which provides crucial health and mental health care to LGBT patients in the metropolitan area. “That’s impossible.”

Like GMHC and the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in New York, and other LGBT-created health care centers across the country, the Whitman-Walker clinic emerged from the AIDS crisis. Bruner, a longtime D.C. activist, recalls those challenging times. “I was one of the people who fought this battle with HIV, when there was widespread discrimination in dental offices,” he says. “Dentists told people to go to Whitman-Walker. Not only is that not acceptable in terms of stigma and trauma, but a lot of these folks didn’t make it to us. And if they had, we wouldn’t have been able to take them all on.”

The same holds true today. Religious exemptions that allow wrongful discrimination will leave many LGBT people stranded without medical care, no matter how robust LGBT clinics may be. “There are a lot of medical specialties that we are not equipped for,” says Bruner. “If someone needs a kidney doctor, to say nothing of surgery, we can’t provide that.” And for trans people, who need medical care to become their authentic selves, the options become even more bleak. Jionni Conforti’s story provides a cautionary tale. Conforti, 33, who is transgender, contacted St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson, NJ, for a routine hysterectomy as treatment for his gender dysphoria. The hospital, which had treated him and his family members for years, scheduled the surgery.

But soon after, Conforti received an email from hospital administrator Father Martin Rooney that the surgery was cancelled. “This is to inform you that as a Catholic Hospital we would not be able to allow your surgeon to schedule this surgery here at St. Joseph’s,” the email reads. In January of last year, Lambda Legal filed a suit in federal court on his behalf.

Religion-based denial of care hits the most vulnerable in our community the hardest, including transgender and bisexual people, seniors and people living with HIV. One area it could seriously affect is LGBTQ youth. A 2014 joint study by the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the Williams Institute found that a whopping 19 percent of kids placed in foster care identify as LGBTQ. Turned away from their families, “these kids end up in our facilities, which are also at capacity, or they become homeless,” says Garcia. “The street economy is very quick to pick them up.”

Shockingly, the biggest trend in religious exemption policies is state laws that allow taxpayer-funded child welfare agencies to deny care to LGBTQ youth and to refuse to place children in queer families. Texas passed such a law in 2017, and Oklahoma and Kansas did in 2018.

Meanwhile, Texas couple Fatma Marouf and Bryn Esplin were denied a chance to foster a refugee child because, they were told, their family did not “mirror the Holy Family.” Lambda Legal is suing on their behalf as well.

"There’s a harmony that we must maintain. There has to be freedom from another person’s freedom—not to be harmed by another’s exercise of freedom.”


What’s most misleading about all these efforts is that the U.S. Constitution and federal and state laws already provide strong protections for religious belief, but when it comes to conduct that affects others, the protections are tailored.

For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the federal employment nondiscrimination statute, allows religious institutions to limit hiring to people of their same faith.

“Of course they’re free to discriminate in their churches and in social clubs,” says Lambda Legal‘s Pizer. "The Constitution protects them. But if they are operating a business that the state regulates to protect the public, they must follow the law.”

Bruner at Whitman-Walker sees an even larger problem. “This interpretation invites chaos,” he says. “It’s much broader than just discrimination against LGBT people. According to this, if I am a health care worker and believe Islam is terrible, why can I not discriminate against a Muslim woman?”

Like many of this administration’s attacks on our country’s core values, the strength of the Constitution and our system are being tested. “Religious freedom has been at the core of the American Experiment going back to de Tocqueville,” says Pizer. “There’s a harmony that we must maintain. There has to be freedom from other people's freedom—not to be harmed by another’s exercise of freedom.”


For some religious and observant LGBT people, an especially damaging aspect of this agenda can’t be readily seen. As government accepts this shunning of LGBT people based on religion, they feel their spiritual lives are jeopardized. To feel like a sinner, a pariah, banished because of others‘ beliefs, can corrode their own faith. It’s an aspect of the LGBT struggle that is often overlooked, but to these people of faith, it is crucial to our community’s collective soul.

This makes places of worship that are LGBT friendly especially vital now. Every Sunday morning, Rev. Kenny Callahan, of the Metropolitan Community Church of Richmond, Virginia, begins his service saying the same thing: “It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve done, how you love or who you love, you are welcome here.”

Surrounded by conservative Christians, the Richmond MCC, founded in 1978, is one of the oldest churches in the state to accept LGBT people. Parishioners come from all over, some driving over two hours to attend services.

One parishioner, Callahan says, is a trans senior citizen who cares for his grandchildren as a man. “But she drives an hour, and in several rest stops on the way, she changes into her authentic self,” the pastor says. “She says when she is here it is the only place where she can feel normal, validated as she has always felt. That’s the beauty of our church, that that woman has a place to be where she can’t be anywhere else.”

In these dark times, when religion is being used to promote hatred and division, putting a strain on our resources and encouraging hopelessness, it’s important to keep that commitment in mind. The LGBT community and our allies can respond as we have done in previous dark times, with love, togetherness and inclusivity.