Currently Michigan Republicans are advancing a bill that would allow adoption agencies to discriminate against gay couples based on their “sincerely held religious beliefs,” writing into statute policies that several adoption agencies in the state already use.
This is to supposedly guard against Catholic adoption agencies from choosing — not being forced, as they claim — to close up shop should they be told they must serve married gay couples or lose their state funding and accreditation, as was the case in Illinois and Massachusetts.
Ironically, this may in part have been exacerbated by our advancing marriage equality efforts. When New York state passed a marriage equality bill in 2011 with modest but significant Republican backing, it did so after Governor Cuomo had wrangled lawmakers into agreeing the bill should carry explicit protections for religious institutions.
These were not new protections. Indeed, they were just making explicitly clear existing constitutional guarantees, but some legal analysts have become wary that this may be one of the rare times where a slippery slope should really be feared: it would not take much to begin to tweak those religious protections to carve out even broader religious privilege. For instance, to say that wedding shop owners need never comply with state anti-discrimination laws when it comes to same-sex marriages and therein allow them the right to deny services.
Yet because these bills have succeeded in appealing to moderate Republicans, they have become the standard for marriage equality efforts, with Maryland in particular having modeled its (successful) marriage equality bill on New York’s, religious exemptions and all.
To illustrate this is an immediate concern, this week Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie released a draft version of the bill drawn up by the state’s attorney general that contains even more specific religious exemptions for the marriage equality effort in Hawaii than the last version.
Religious conservatives — among them the supposed-to-be out of the fight Mormon church — say they need wider protections, some going so far as to demand exemptions for marriage related businesses, adoption and foster care services and counseling. It is unlikely Abercrombie will yield to those requests, but the intent here is clear: to push beyond the bounds of constitutional rights and claim special religious privilege.
What is startling is that these kinds of demands for special privilege appear to be cropping up more frequently and on a variety of LGBT rights topics: Michigan’s seeking religious exemptions in anti-bullying laws, Maryland considering religious exemptions in trans rights bills, and more.
Let’s be clear here: there can be no exceptions to civil rights because to do so takes a sledgehammer to the very notion of equality. Religious rights and LGBT rights should not be classed as competing victimhoods. Allowing for full equality under the law does not impinge on private religious belief, it simply means that you cannot be allowed to use your religion to discriminate in the public, secular sphere.
Any legislation attempting to carve out religious exemptions beyond what are perfectly agreeable constitutional guarantees of religious freedom is really seeking special privilege to discriminate and that isn’t just a threat to the LGBT community, it’s a threat to anyone concerned with wider civil rights and the integrity of a secular nation.
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