NICE GOING, SCOTUS: Emboldened Religious Organizations Now Asking For Permission To Discriminate Against LGBQT Employees And Students

The United States, where church and state are supposedly separate, is codifying discrimination on the part of Christian-owned and run entities, and thus far, we haven't seen any high-profile denials of requests for religious exemptions.

Jul 15, 2014 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

First, they came for your birth control. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court determined that Hobby Lobby could refuse insurance coverage for four types of birth control on religious grounds, and it opened the floodgates. Suddenly closely-held corporations were no longer required to provide birth control as part of their insurance plans as long as they felt it opposed their religious values, and religion was allowed to trump science (Hobby Lobby argued that the four forms in question cause abortions, when in fact they simply act to prevent pregnancy -- and the Supreme Court indicated that the ruling covers all contraceptives, not just the named four).

While the majority might have claimed that it was a narrow ruling with limited applications, dissenting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg warned otherwise, and she was right. Almost immediately, the court was demanding reviews of similar cases at lower courts, indicating that it felt the scope of the decision applied more broadly. In a hugely damaging blow to reproductive justice and autonomy, the Supreme Court effectively gutted an important provision of ACA for patients interested in accessing birth control. 

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Photo: Nicholas Eckhart, Flickr.

Next, they came for your employment nondiscrimination protections. After all, if companies don't have to provide insurance for birth control if it might violate their religious values, why should they be forced to hire LGBQT employees? In a letter to the Obama administration, religious groups and leaders demanded the "right" to be able to discriminate against LGBQT people in closely-held corporations, arguing that Hobby Lobby had established a precedent. 

As the President prepares to issue an executive order barring LGBQT employment discrimination on the part of federal contractors (because Congress has yet to pass an inclusive ENDA), "faith leaders" wrote to him, pleading for the inclusion of a loophole. They insisted that being forced to treat LGBQT employees like everyone else would place a heavy burden on federal contractors with religious owners, and demanded that in a document meant to end discrimination, the President add a clause allowing some people to... discriminate? 

Now, they're coming for transgender students. Jayce M., a transgender student at George Fox University, will not be allowed to live on campus with his cohort because the university demanded a religious exemption allowing it to discriminate against him, and the Department of Education just granted it. George Fox is a Quaker university, and many within the faith feel that the college has overstepped its religious bounds, as Quakers believe that all persons have worth and value before G-d. 

It's a bizarre turn of affairs, because Quakers have long been known for their compassion and for their forward-thinking notions on society and culture. Quakers were at the front lines of the fight against slavery, against animal abuse, against child labour, and against many other social injustices that other groups weren't even considering at the time. For members of the Quaker faith to turn out a transgender student is shocking, and disturbing. 

As a beneficiary of public funds, George Fox is also not the same thing as a private or closely-held corporation, or even a church. US tax dollars -- my tax dollars -- are funding the school's discriminatory policies, and this sets a troubling precedent.

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Photo: Michael D. Beckwith, Flickr.

How far are religious exemptions going to expand in the coming weeks, months, and years? The ink has scarcely dried on the Hobby Lobby case and the Supreme Court has already extended its scope radically after promising that it wouldn't, and now, groups are taking advantage of it. At the same time, in an unrelated case, a Quaker university is demanding, and receiving, a discrimination permission slip in a situation that's been going on for months, much of it largely behind the scenes. 

With two high-profile decisions affirming discrimination against people with the help of "religious exemptions" in totally different contexts, the religious public is receiving a very clear message. The United States, where church and state are supposedly separate, is codifying discrimination on the part of Christian-owned and run entities, and thus far, we haven't seen any high-profile denials of requests for religious exemptions. 

So what's next? Businesses demanding the right to refuse to hire women? Mormon-owned businesses refusing to hire or serve people of color? Christian-owned colleges and universities suing for the right to refuse to accommodate sports teams from rival schools if transgender players are on the team? The list of possibilities is almost unfathomable, and it's also terrifying. If this sounds like overdramatic fearmongering, ask yourself whether you would have believed that a Quaker college would ask for a religious exemption to discriminate against a transgender student, and get it. 

Individuals of faith should never be forced to do something that goes against their religious beliefs, just as atheists should never be compelled to do something that violates their ethical framework. But this is not about individuals. It's about institutions, and structure, and culture, and the fact that Christian-owned businesses are gathering around the buffet for a chance to discriminate in a nation that advertises itself as the "land of the free."

How free is the United States if any Christian-owned business or institution can freely discriminate with the government's permission? Why is the Supreme Court ruling that faith trumps science and civil rights? Why are government agencies supporting the right to discriminate? Civil rights are under threat in the US and religious influences are beginning to overwhelm the state. 

While the separation of church and state has always been rocky (why is G-d on our money, for example, and in the pledge of allegiance? Why do politicians ask G-d to bless America at the end of every speech?), that separation appears to be actively eroding now. Chalk it up as a major victory in the column for conservative Christians, who are those most eager to push through regressive social policies on the back of "religious exemptions."