Are Religious Exemptions About to Erase Your Rights?

LGBT rights commentators and groups are growing increasingly concerned with a number of bills being filed at the state and federal level that seek to allow discrimination against LGBT people on grounds of religious belief.

A bill filed  in the U.S. House that would give special protection to religious institutions and groups to apparently protect them so that the federal government could never remove their tax exempt status on grounds that they have discriminated against gay people, has received significant attention for the worrying precedent it would set should it become law.

Drafted by Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), the bill is supposed to be an answer to the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision striking down DOMA Section 3 as unconstitutional and therein removing the last barrier to federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

Rep. Labrador is quoted as saying the bill is a “narrowly-tailored piece of legislation” that he designed to fulfill “an immediate need, which is the protection of religious institutions and churches, so that they can continue practicing their religion as they see fit.”

That last comment, “so that they can continue practicing their religion as they see fit,” betrays that this is anything but a “narrowly-tailored piece of legislation.” In fact, the bill appears so broad that it would potentially allow federal workers to refuse services and expertise to married same-sex couples or couples looking to get married, all based on their own religious beliefs.

Labrador, as evidence the bill is needed, points to recent California legislation (State Senate Bill 323) that would have added “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the list of classes of people that groups cannot discriminate against without having their state tax exemptions withdrawn.

The bill, for instance, would have denied the Boy Scouts of America tax exempt status if it continues to discriminate against gay and trans scouts. While a policy change this year allows gay scouts to remain in the youth group, it does so on a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” basis, meanwhile gay scout leaders will still be kicked out if they disclose their sexuality.

The bill was shelved this month in the waning days of the session but it could still be taken up again in the next legislative session.

The legislation was heavily opposed by religious conservatives who said that amounts to an attack on their religious beliefs. Of course, this is nonsense. The bill in no way attacks religious belief. It would simply mean that in order to get special state tax exemptions, groups would have to comply with nondiscrimination standards that are present in the state’s other laws. That this is not already the case is what should really be cause for concern.

Labrador’s federal bill has been the source of much ire from the LGBT community, with Freedom to Marry President Evan Wolfson saying: “This sweeping Trojan Horse proposal would swallow civil rights laws and subvert constitutional protections, and is a dangerous ‘solution’ to a non-problem.”

Wolfson goes on to warn that this bill seeks what amounts to a license to discriminate in the public sphere.

Annoyingly, Labrador is claiming that the “Marriage and Religious Freedom Act,” as it is so called, is a “bipartisan” effort because he has managed to round up two Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) and Dan Lipinski (D-Ind.), to join him as lead sponsors of the bill. There are about 60 other co-sponsors, but as the above are the only Democratic Reps signing on to this effort, it is by no means legislation with true bipartisan support.

To be clear, Labrador has little chance of getting his bill through Congress despite the recent IRS controversy that could have bolstered the effort. This, though, seems another routine attack by Tea Party-aligned lawmakers to carve out special exemptions, much like their repeated attempts to prevent same-sex marriages being conducted on military bases and seeking special protections for anti-gay military chaplains.

However, what this effort shows is a distinctly worrying trend that at state level may see more success.

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.

Image credit: Thinkstock.

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Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson2 years ago

religion is a poison and a sad crutch for those who, for whatever reason, cannot cope with life without an imaginary friend. My 3 year old has one also, it helps him sleep. He will outgrow his, thankfully. If these poor individuals need to hold tightly to their mythology, fine, but being forced to live by their twisted ideas about morality is ridiculous

GGma Sheila D.
GGmaSheila D.2 years ago

"...continuing to practice their religion as they see fit." No, it will allow them to practice bigotry as they see fit on a very large scale. It seems that many of these Releigious Fanatic groups getting tax-exempt status are using that status, and the money not paid in taxes, to practice racism, bigotry, and even sedition. If they have all that money to buy politicians, to pay for lobbiests, to just be general pains in the behind, then they aren't using the money for their religious beliefs but their racists beliefs. They do not deserve to keep tax-exempt status when billionaires form these groups and funnel big bucks, tax-free, into the groups to undermine our political system - that's not religion, that's, at the very least, sedition, possibly even treason.

Elke Hoppenbrouwers

so many times I am astonished at the influence religious groups have on politics in this country. I always thought that like in many western countries there is a separation of church and state. Some of these groups have become quite radical just like some politicians. Not a good sign!

Franck Rio
Franck R.2 years ago


Lynn C.
Lynn c.2 years ago


Nils Anders Lunde


pam w.
pam w.2 years ago

Susan T..."Personally I don't care either way but I do believe churches have the right to say NO."

+++++++++++ I suspect you care very much....because you've misquoted the law. NOBODY is REQUIRED to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples.


Mary L.
Mary L.2 years ago

They scream about special privilege for LGBTQI people who want to marry, that it's not fair and not right.

But when the shoe pinches their foot then things must change! Why not the French system? All marriage is civil.

If YOU feel like having a religious ceremony fine, no worries. Works for me.

Linda McKellar
Past Member 2 years ago

I agree with Kevin. Instead of using religion as an excuse, why don't people just admit that they're judgemental and bigoted? Lots of people are, including myself on some topics. Those are just my views, not ones taught to me by someone else and I am willing to admit it. The church may teach you that the moon is made of green cheese but that doesn't mean you have to be mindless enough not to reach your own conclusions and disagree if you come to a different conclusion. If you think being gay is wrong, admit that is YOUR opinion and stop blaming it on your religion. You are free to think what you wish but at least have the courage and moral fortitude to admit such decisions are your own. Susan did the right thing by going to a church that did not discriminate against her.

Linda McKellar
Past Member 2 years ago

Susan, exactly the point. Of course gays cannot marry in an Islamic church because their religion makes them bigots too. Some Muslim men believe it is OK to sexually abuse boys which constitutes both pedophilia and homosexuality, and yet they hate homosexuality! What is that all about? They also institute forced marriages to underage girls. The fact that they too deny rights, including the right to life in some cases, just makes them another bigoted religion like some Christian sects that say gays are evil. Personally, if I was gay, I wouldn't want to marry in a church that didn't want me. Since I'm not religious, I wouldn't marry in ANY church. Why would I? That would be hypocritical. I'm not baptized and have never attended any church. That would be just silly of me to sit hours on end and listen to stuff that is, to me, utter nonsense.