The Push To Deny LGBT Americans Their Basic Rights, Explained

People protest outside the North Carolina Executive Mansion in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, March 24, 2016 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/EMERY P. DALESIO
People protest outside the North Carolina Executive Mansion in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, March 24, 2016 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/EMERY P. DALESIO

State-level efforts to police which public bathrooms trans people are allowed to use have thrust the topic of LGBT discrimination into the national headlines. Often — but not always — legislation targeting the LGBT community is cloaked in the guise of religious freedom.

The interplay between religious exemption and anti-LGBT bills can be complicated. As this legislation dominates the news, here’s what you need to understand:

So-called ‘religious freedom’ bills and anti-trans bathroom laws are not exactly the same.

Not every anti-LGBT bill is a religious exemption bill. Not every religious exemption bill mentions LGBT people. Some bills use religion and target LGBT people. It’s like the worst Venn diagram ever.

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Some legislation designed to discriminate against LGBT people can be characterized as a “religious exemption” or RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) because it would provide exemptions from the law on religious grounds. 2016 legislation in states including Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi fall into this category. Some bills explicitly protect persons based on their belief that marriage is between one man and one woman, or that sex should only happen within heterosexual marriage, as in Mississippi’s “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” (HB 1523).

Not to be confused with religious exemption laws, state legislative efforts have also attacked bathroom access for transgender Americans and eroded the rights of local towns and municipalities to create civil protections for sexual orientation and gender identity — no religion needed. North Carolina’s HB 2 falls in this category, successfully passing after a state RFRA failed during the regular legislative session. In these cases, the main target of these bills is laid especially bare: LGBT Americans.

Many anti-LGBT and religious exemption bills don’t begin in the mind of a local lawmaker — they begin in the halls of conservative legal organizations.

Despite recent advances like national marriage equality, a few well-funded, extremely conservative groups are committed to chipping away at LGBT rights. They’re doing this by shopping around discriminatory legislation.

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The conservative Christian legal defense fund Liberty Counsel, for instance, recently affirmed its prominent role in helping to draft and lobby for anti-trans bathroom bills in states across the country. This is the same group whose president Mat Staver famously joined Mike Huckabee in celebrating the release of Kim Davis from county jail and continues to represent Davis in her efforts to resist marriage equality in Kentucky.

In Tennessee, meanwhile, the conservative Family Action Council joined the Christian legal fund Alliance Defending Freedom to draft and lobby for a religious exemption bill that would allow counselors to deny service to anyone if they held an objection based on a “sincerely held religious belief.” The Family Action Council is a chapter organization of the Family Research Council (FRC), which lobbies ardently for anti-LGBT policies nationwide and played a prominent role in supporting last year’s Indiana RFRA.

In Arizona, the Alliance Defending Freedom reportedly bears responsibility for SB 1062, which if passed would have allowed anti-LGBT discrimination on the basis of religious belief.

Efforts to restrict LGBT rights end up affecting more people than you might realize.

Want to help your elderly relative or friend with a disability use the restroom with dignity? If an anti-trans “bathroom bill” passes in your state, you might not be able to do that anymore. And that’s just the beginning. Vague language and unintended consequences mean that religious exemption bills and anti-LGBT bills can significantly impact other vulnerable populations.

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North Carolina’s HB 2 restricts anyone from entering a public gender-segregated restroom that does not correspond to the gender on their birth certificate. This kind of discrimination make simply going to the bathroom extremely difficult, if not dangerous, for trans and gender non-conforming people. Many could face harassment or violence by entering restrooms that vary from their own gender identity — and many face enough violence and harassment in bathroom settings as it is.

But HB 2 also threatens other people who face difficulties in carrying out the basic human need to use the bathroom — including people with intellectual or physical disabilities, the elderly, or even someone with a short-term physical limitation who’s in need of extra help. Restrictions on gender-segregated bathrooms could make it illegal for caregivers to accompany their companions into the restroom if the two people are of different genders.

If constructed broadly enough, religious conscience and exemption bills can also begin to mess with the personal lives of straight, cisgender people. Signed into law earlier this month, Mississippi’s new HB 1523 also protects people who discriminate on the basis of the belief that sex belongs only within the confines of marriage. Under the law, a landlord could deny housing to an unmarried couple or an unmarried pregnant woman or parent. Had it not been vetoed, recent legislation in Georgia would have enabled comparable circumstances.

Moreover, as companies and organizations protest these bills by pulling investment and tourist dollars from the state, staggering economic impacts can occur. North Carolina stands to lose at least $576.5 million as a result of HB2 — that’s over half a billion dollars that would have otherwise been invested in jobs, local commerce, and economic development. Rather than enacting measures that would strengthen state economies, too many legislatures are choosing to pursue damaging legislation that would only limit their states’ economic growth.

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Of course, even if every bad bill was eliminated tomorrow, LGBT Americans in over half of the states in the U.S. would still lack clear and basic protections in daily life. In addition to fighting against these bills, the effort for LGBT dignity and equality still requires support for comprehensive non-discrimination protections on the local, state, and federal level. Carolyn J. Davis is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Center for American Progress Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. Follow her on Twitter at @carojdavis.