“Religious” Exemptions- a Matter of Civil Rights

In the recent Hobby Lobby ruling, five of nine Supreme Court justices abandoned our country’s foundation of separation of church and state and ruled that the religious beliefs of a corporation can trump the rights of employees. It also emboldened some religious leaders like Rick Warren to send a letter to Obama requesting a robust “religious freedom” exemption in Obama’s anticipated anti-discrimination order aimed at prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity. President Obama signed that order last Monday without the requested religious exemptions. The terms “religious freedom” and “religious liberty” were used during the civil rights era when businesses tried to justify their refusal to serve African Americans and interracial couples. Should those with religious motivations be exempt from laws designed to treat everyone equitably and fairly? The hypocrisy revealed in their letter is evidence of the injustice LGBT people have been facing for far too long and it has thankfully made those who have been advocating for equality steadfastly refuse to support any anti-discrimination legislation that includes broad religious exemptions.

In his 2012 inaugural speech, President Obama declared, “our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.” We have a long way to go.
In twenty-nine states it is legal to fire or refuse to hire someone based on their sexual orientation and in thirty-three states it is legal to fire or refuse to hire someone based on their gender identity. The fundamental principles of fairness, equality and equity for all must stand along with general laws applied evenly and fairly regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity. The proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) passed by the Senate includes a robust religious exemption and according to Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, the law “strikes a good balance between making sure that discrimination based on sexual orientation will not be tolerated, but also that one of our nation’s fundamental freedoms – religious freedom – is still upheld.” In other words, discrimination will not be tolerated, unless it is right and just to discriminate based upon our religious beliefs.

The only way for people in a pluralistic society with diverse backgrounds, diverse faiths, and diverse beliefs to co-exist, is to respect all with no exceptions and refuse to recognize an expanded definition of “religious liberty” that includes harm and costs to others. Discrimination is harmful not just to the individual, but to society as a whole. One who is fired or denied housing because of an innate attribute unrelated to merit is harmed, often times significantly, both economically and psychologically. It is an affront to human dignity. Sanctioned discrimination embedded in laws or regulations in the form of religious exemptions essentially creates a caste system. No group should be singled out or exempted from protection and, at the same time, no group should be exempt from following a general law of equality for all.

Religious freedom and liberty will continue to thrive if we pass laws protecting the rights of all people. You can still believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. Your freedom to practice your religion, to attend your house of worship, and to engage in fellowship with others remains intact. You will not be forced to practice another religion or abandon your current teachings. But once you enter the marketplace and involve yourself in hiring, firing, and providing housing and services to others in this country, you cannot use those beliefs to harm others. As Ginsburg quoted in her Hobby Lobby dissent, “[Y]our right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”
Our leaders must adhere to the sovereignty of individual rights and freedoms where all people are treated equally and fairly with dignity and respect. This is the civil rights issue of our time.