Conservatives Are Using Religious Freedom Bills to Take Over Our Private Lives

North Carolina's unprecedented discriminatory bill this week is the tip of a very deep, dark, and dangerous iceberg.
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March 25, 2016
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religion, politics, religious discrimination

On Wednesday, North Carolina's government rammed through a dangerously discriminatory bill that banned all municipal and regional ordinances designed to address discriminatory practices, applying retroactively as well as in the future. It clearly passed in response to an ordinance in Charlotte that aimed to prevent LGBQT discrimination in public accommodations. The state joins the over half of U.S. states which offer little to no protections for LGBQT people — three of which explicitly bar passing and enforcing regional nondiscrimination laws. The bill also has some hidden kickers, like the fact that it eliminates individual minimum wage ordinances, prohibiting cities and counties across the state from raising their minimum wage.

People, including the state's own Attorney General, are rightly outraged and horrified by the law and how swiftly it was processed — it took just 12 hours from start to finish, passing unanimously after Democratic senators walked out in protest, refusing to hold a referendum on the basic rights of human beings in their state. (It should be noted that their protest didn't affect the outcome: Republicans had the majority and would have passed it even if Democrats were present.)

But there's more going on here than just this bill, which is part of a complicated shell game conservative politicians are playing with people's lives. Even as this serves as model legislation for striking own equal protection ordinances, the religious right is also whipping up fictional concerns that Christians are a persecuted minority under siege, because conservatives are staunchly opposed to equal protection and know that an appeal to religious values is a highly successful tactic. That means that a growing number of states are entrenching discrimination in another form with the use of religious freedom bills or pastor protection bills, all of which enshrine the right to discriminate against people in the name of religious freedom.

Remember the argument that legalizing same gender marriage would result in people marrying ducks, random inanimate objects, or horses? That hyperbole from the Christian right was wild and overstated, designed to be inflammatory, but it set the stage for another form of propaganda: The claim that religious officiants would be compelled to perform same gender marriages, in addition to offering other accommodations to same gender couples in religious settings.

This isn't true — while it is bigoted for churches to refuse to extend God's mercy to all, they're perfectly legally justified in doing so, thanks to the robust protection of religious rights in the United States. Well, robust if you're Christian, at any rate. Churches are private accommodations and as such can choose to discriminate, unlike public businesses and government offices, which is why you can sue a bakery that won't sell you a cake or compel a county clerk to issue you a marriage license, but you can't actually legally force a priest to perform a same gender marriage.

The religious right is extremely talented at manufacturing panic, and for conservative Christians, like people of any religious faith, the thought of having your freedom to worship compromised is upsetting. Conservatives are using that to their advantage in an attempt to push through chillingly discriminatory bills in response to a growing social interest in promoting civil and human rights for all. Such bills join a volley of tactics intended to undermine attempts at equality — like the endless series of Supreme Court cases challenging the birth control clause in the Affordable Care Act.

Conservative Christians already enjoy substantial privileges and special protection in the American religious landscape, but it's not enough for them, which is why a growing number of states are passing or considering religious freedom bills or pastor protection bills. The exact framing of such bills varies from state to state, but same gender marriages usually lie at the heart of them, with a clause clearly stating that religious officials cannot be compelled to perform same gender marriages — something that they already aren't required to do under the law.

This kind of junk legislation doesn't actually add to the body of law, it just reiterates the acceptability of discrimination and opens the door to similarly discriminatory legislation.

Many of these laws also cover other church activities, however, allowing churches to discriminate when they provide services like housing, meal programs, and other charitable works. This comes into direct conflict with a serious issue: Many churches receive government funding and assistance with such programs. Religious freedom bills allow them to use taxpayer dollars for discriminatory practices, something that should be deeply worrying, especially in light of the growth of faith-based initiatives, which replace existing government services with church-administered programs. Vulnerable groups could be left with the need for services but no way to access them.

Georgia has been getting a great deal of press lately for its Pastor Protection Act, which passed in January, though the governor hasn't signed it yet. Numerous companies are already threatening to boycott the state over the bill, which they see as deeply anti-gay. Remarkably, the bill was actually less extremist than some other legislation along similar lines that was under consideration in Georgia.

Louisiana is considering a very similar bill, though the legislature hasn't taken it up for a vote just yet. The state's businesses are very concerned about the repercussions, given the situation in Georgia, especially in light of the NFL's threat to refuse to hold the Super Bowl, a major prestige event, in Georgia and presumably other states with such legislation. Louisiana's business owners recognize that regardless of their own feelings on the subject of equal protection, such a law could cost the state billions of dollars.

Meanwhile, Texas already has a Pastor Protection Act, which governor Greg Abbott signed into law with sweeping acclaim as he proudly announced that religious officiants could "exercise their First Amendment rights," as though there were doubts about their ability to do so before. His comments cemented the idea that people would attempt to limit the free exercise of faith, playing upon a common theme of scare tactics and bigotry. Oklahoma also implemented a religious freedom bill.

Florida has considered such legislation as well, exploring it in October of 2015 with a subcommittee vote that split along party lines. It was a stark illustration of the huge fracturing that's happening as Republicans become more extremist and Democrats become less willing to work on bipartisan legislation. Tennessee, meanwhile, moved particularly quickly with a pastor protection act in June of 2015, responding to aggressive rhetoric about same gender marriage and the threat that people would be banging down the doors of churches to demand that homophobic and hostile officiants bless their unions.

These bills are passing state legislatures in the context of a larger trend: State Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, which model themselves after federal legislation that President Bill Clinton signed in the early 1990s. Clinton and proponents claimed at the time that the bill was meant to institute a standard of strict scrutiny when it came to abridging religious freedoms — for example, pharmacists should be compelled to provide emergency contraception regardless of personal beliefs because of the implications for the health and wellbeing of their patients. The bill, like other conservative legislation, stirred the belief that Christians — because this legislation is not about Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and those of a myriad of other faiths — were being forced to compromise their religious values by a big bad government.

The federal law, however, isn't enough for some states, thanks to the Burwell v Hobby Lobby decision, which has sparked a bitter debate about access to birth control on corporate insurance plans. It also contributed to panic among conservative legislators who became convinced that businesses and individuals in their states would be forced to compromise fundamental religious values (like the right to control another person's right to make medical decisions), and the growth of individual state Religious Freedom Restoration Acts.

Nearly 40 states have either considered or implemented such laws, which dovetail very nicely with pastor protection laws. The main purpose of the legislation is to cement the right to discriminate, while also maintaining the constant specter of evil forces lurking in the wings to destroy religious freedoms for conservative Christians in America.

The popularity of these laws is rapidly accelerating, which is deeply worrying, especially as the country shifts in a more conservative direction. Some might be inclined to write them off as a problem of "the South" or "the religious right," but that's a grave mistake that does an injustice to all the people affected by such laws, in addition to being a misstatement, as plenty of allegedly liberal states have considered religious freedom laws of various forms. This is not a "someone else" problem, but a national issue.

North Carolina's law is a signal that other states may take up the cause of striking down equal protection ordinances and other municipal laws via a state law that supersedes them. It's the next iteration of religious freedom and pastor protection bills, showing how conservatives can seamlessly transition to broader and broader laws that entrench more and more discrimination. In many senses, it's a masterwork of manufactured panic and legislative backlash, and a reminder that conservatives are an incredibly powerful force that shouldn't be dismissed or mocked.

Photo: Pete Markham/Creative Commons