A majority of Americans already believe that an employer’s religious beliefs should not allow them to discriminate against LGBT customers or employees. Nevertheless, a group of faith leaders — including Rick Warren, Michael Wear, Stephen Schneck, and Joel Hunter — are asking President Obama to create such a religious exemption when he issues an executive order protecting the LGBT employees of all federal contractors. Because “we still live in a nation with different beliefs about sexuality,” the letter argues, religious groups should not be prohibited from federal contracts if they refuse to hire LGBT workers.
The timing of the letter — just days after the Supreme Court’s ruling n the Hobby Lobby case — suggests the religious leaders are trying to capitalize on the recent extension of religious liberty in regards to companies’ coverage of birth control for employees. In his decision, however, Justice Alito specifically clarified that workplace discrimination is a harm that the government has a “compelling interest” in eradicating. Though he did not clarify if that principle applies specifically to LGBT people, University of Pennsylvania law professor Tobias Barrington Wolff argues that it does. The decision was a victory for businesses’ “religious liberty,” but it also “strongly supports the enforceability of anti-discrimination laws, even in the face of religious liberty exemptions,” he explains. “Hobby Lobby represents a vindication of the principle that anti-discrimination protections should trump religious objections in the workplace.”
These religious leaders disagree, but their “religious liberty” argument ignores the merit of the issue at hand. They are not actually making the case in favor of discrimination against LGBT people; in fact, they attempt to argue that “banning discrimination is a good thing,” but they just don’t think it’s a good enough thing to force on all religious organizations. Religion, they claim, deserves a special exemption.
Not all conservatives agree with this tactic. Jennifer Roback Morse, head of the anti-sexual revolution Ruth Institute, made the case against “religious liberty” arguments this past week. She openly admits that “religious liberty arguments do not address the underlying issue.” In fact, she says, they are “a losing argument.”
But Morse’s biggest complaint is that when social conservatives make “religious liberty” arguments, “we sound like we are whining.” They would be more credible, she contends, if they talked more about the people who “have been harmed by the Revolutionary Ideology” and “less about ourselves.”
Morse is a fierce opponent of marriage equality and LGBT rights in general. The Ruth Institute was affiliated with the National Organization for Marriage until last year, and Morse has personally described same-sex marriage as “government registry of friendships.” She believes that gay people can “stop acting in a gay way” and that children raised by same-sex couples will resent their parents. She has even discouraged young people from having gay friends. But though she is motivated in part by her own faith, she has not defended her conservative positions by claiming that she is a victim of religious oppression. “Let’s stop talking about religious liberty already,” she implores, “and get down to the real business of evangelizing this culture.”
That’s the opposite of what these religious leaders are doing. They make no attempt to justify discrimination against LGBT people, but they are nevertheless defending the practice. A religious exemption for LGBT protections would communicate that LGBT and faith identities are inherently incompatible. Codifying such a policy would erase the many LGBT people who are people of faith and the many religious traditions that are welcoming of them. This erasure, along with the discrimination LGBT people would continue to experience, would be a worthy sacrifice, they claim, to avoid “an unreasonable cost to the common good, national unity, and religious freedom.” It’s an admission that discriminating against LGBT people is such an important part of their mission that they would disqualify themselves from federal contracts rather than change their policies — and that they don’t have a good argument for doing so.