One would have to be positively comatose to not realize that an election cycle is upon us. For the moment, personalities are trumping1 the issues, but eventually our national discourse will turn to the latter. When they do, expect to hear a lot more rhetoric about protecting religious liberty. My task today is to explain how religious liberty intersects with LGBT interests, and what I, as a trans person, hear when a candidate starts making promises to defend it.
The average queer American is somewhat religious, and probably becoming more so even as the national population moves in the opposite direction. A Pew Research survey in 2015 found that while fewer LGB Americans aligned themselves with a faith than the general population (60% vs 80%), the percentage of homosexuals identifying as Christians increased from 40% to 48% since 2013 even as the percentage in the general population decreased from 78% to 71%.
It would seem, therefore, that LGBT folk have every reason to be interested in the preservation of religious freedoms. Even post-religious, reprobate, demon-spawn heathens like me are all for such liberties. Let people believe what they will. Why then, do LGBT groups get in a lather when candidates pontificate on religious freedom or legislatures propose laws guaranteeing it? The answer is that recent calls to “restore religious freedom” have nothing whatsoever to do with protecting religious freedom and everything to do with perpetuating discrimination against sexual and gender minorities.
Up until last year, an ideological struggle over the meaning of marriage raged throughout the nation. Then, in June, the Supreme Court ruled2 that prohibitions against gay marriage were unconstitutional. The battle ended overnight. Or not. Within months, Republican legislatures in 22 states proposed “religious freedom restoration acts” (RFRA). Proponents asserted that churches with doctrinal objections to homosexual marriage should not be forced to sanctify such marriages. Almost nobody would argue this point, but unfortunately the proposals do not stop there.
Broadly speaking, RFRA bills hold that LGBT persons may be denied goods, service and access if the individuals or businesses deny these things based on moral objection to homosexuality/transgender variance. A baker who sells wedding cakes need not sell one to a lesbian couple. A hotel which caters receptions need not rent out its space for a gay wedding. Restaurants need not seat or serve transgender patrons.
Paradoxically, as gay marriage has become legal, discrimination against gays is actually increasing in some states. It is still perfectly legal to fire someone for their sexual or gender identity in 28 states. “Married on Saturday; Fired on Monday” is altogether too common. In several bills, the state specifically nullifies any municipal bill which offers greater discrimination protection within its city limits. In other words, if Minneapolis enacted a law which prevented housing discrimination against trans people, Minnesota could pass an RFRA law which rendered the city’s protections void. Fortunately, Minnesota is not a state where such bills enjoy success. In the Bible Belt, however, it is a different story.
Deliberate deception characterizes the public promotion of these laws. Proponents opine that religious freedoms are “under attack”. Churches, they say, will be forced to accept teachings that they cannot accept. Preaching against homosexuality will become illegal. Parents will be prevented from teaching their kids to abstain from pre-marital sex. Such propaganda has worked to get RFRAs passed. The end result is codification of discrimination such that a janitor can lose his job cleaning school classrooms or a nursing assistant be fired by an assisted living facility which objects to the fact that she has a girlfriend. Unsurprisingly, RFRA proponents demonstrate little or no sympathy for the idea of laws protecting the practice of any religion but their own. Donald Trump wants to stop Muslim immigration. Ted Cruz states we should accept Christian refugees, but send Muslims to other countries.
The moral of the story is “Be careful what you wish for.” I don’t want to live in a country where the government can tell a preacher what to say, but that is not really what is at stake here. Instead, cover is being given to businesses that openly discriminate against non-straight clients.3 I choose to believe that we are better than this.