It has become common practice for conservatives to defend legislation that enables anti-LGBT discrimination as supporting the cause of “religious liberty.” Considering most religious people actually support protections for LGBT people, this framing is misleading, and as several current state legislative fights demonstrate, unconvincing as well.
This week, for example, the Virginia House of Delegates voted 56–41 to pass something called the Government Nondiscrimination Act (HB 773), which is essentially a state version of the First Amendment Defense Act proposed in Congress. The bill claims to offer “protection of the free exercise of religious beliefs and moral convictions,” but it actually exclusively protects anti-LGBT beliefs.
The bill states that the government can not alter the tax status or deny any grant or contract if an individual or organization holds one of the following “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions”:
- that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman,
- that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage,
- that the male sex and the term “man” and the female sex and the term “woman” refer to an individual’s biological sex as determined at birth.
The bill would give special privileges to people who don’t wish to give any recognition to same-sex marriages, transgender people, or anybody who has any sex out of marriage, requiring the state government to continue subsidizing any person or organization that discriminates as such. It doesn’t protect “religious liberty” across the board — only for those inclined against LGBT people.
Georgia lawmakers are considering a similar pair of bills, among others. SB 284 doesn’t include Virginia’s anti-transgender provision, but does similarly offer exclusive protection to those with “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such marriage.”
A Senate committee advanced the bill on Tuesday. Sponsor Sen. Greg Kirk (R) explained that he “listened to the concerns of the faith community, the business community, and the LGBT community, and I truly believe this legislation protects all individuals.” Conservative groups praised it as a “live and let live bill” and “simply a tolerance bill.”
Likewise, Georgia bill HB 756 similarly would extend special protections to individuals and businesses, ensuring that they do not have to sell goods or services “directly to a religious organization or for a religious or matrimonial ceremony in violation of such seller’s right to free exercise of religion under the Constitution of this state or of the United States.” The legislation is designed to allow wedding vendors to justify refusing service to same-sex couples in the name of religion.
“Religious liberty” has also apparently become an urgent concern in Nebraska. Lawmakers there are considering LB 975, the Child Welfare Services Preservation Act. “In order to preserve the support that child-placing agencies offer children and families,” the bill states, “the government should not take adverse action against child-placing agencies based on their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Like other states’ legislation, the Nebraska bill would prevent the government from taking any “adverse action” — such as cutting funding or denying a license — against an adoption agency that refuses to serve families in ways that violate its “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
State Sen. Mark Kolterman (R), the bill’s sponsor, claims it isn’t meant to encourage discrimination against same-sex adoptive or foster parents — it’s just designed to protect agencies’ religious beliefs and thus Nebraska’s children.
But why now? It was only in August that a state judge struck down the state’s ban on same-sex couples providing foster care or adopting state wards. The law had not been enforced for several years, but still gave cover for the agencies inclined to discriminate. Now, those organizations stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in state and federal funding if they use their religious beliefs to limit what kinds of families they’re willing to consider as caregivers for the state’s children.
Though their proponents have made it clear that LGBT people are the target of these bills, there are others who could also get caught in the crossfire:
- Virginia’s legislation could allow for discrimination against an unmarried pregnant woman, because an organization might believe she shouldn’t have had sex outside of marriage.
- Georgia’s bill would also allow businesses to refuse service to religious groups; Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta worries that an HVAC contractor would refuse to fix their air conditioning on a hot day.
- Nebraska’s bill might allow a child-placement agency to refuse to place a child with a biological relative if that relative doesn’t share the agency’s religious beliefs.
Indeed, the latest “religious liberty” bills upend actual religious freedoms by privileging one set of beliefs over others. Such an approach arguably has little to do with liberty whatsoever.