“Religious Exemption” laws—an attempt to give private business owners and public officials a legal basis for discrimination—is the latest threat to LGBT civil rights, says Andy Lang, executive director of the UCC’s Open and Affirming Coalition.
The Coalition is asking General Synod to approve a resolution calling on “congregations and all settings of the United Church of Christ to advocate on the basis of faith against legislation or executive actions that aim to establish a broad ‘religious exemption’ to existing or future laws protecting the equal rights of LGBT persons.”
“Essentially, ‘religious exemption’ is ‘Plan B’ for the opposition to marriage equality in the United States,” says Lang. “They know marriage rights for same-sex couples may soon be the law of the land, so their tactics have shifted: by establishing broad religious exemptions, they hope to limit the application not only of marriage equality but of any law protecting LGBT people from discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations or adoption services.”
The proposed laws vary from state to state. On June 11, Michigan’s Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law three bills that allow state-funded private adoption agencies to turn away same-sex couples. That same day, North Carolina’s legislature overturned Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto of a bill that allows public officials to “recuse” themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In both cases, providers of public services can claim religious belief as a ground for discrimination.
In other states, lawmakers have proposed bills seeking to exempt private business owners from existing or future laws protecting LGBT persons from discrimination. “Some of these laws are so broadly written that a restaurant owner could refuse to serve a same-sex couple, or a landlord could refuse to rent an apartment to the same couple,” Lang said. “These laws, if adopted, almost certainly will be challenged in the courts—but that puts the burden on LGBT persons either to prove discrimination or to challenge the constitutionality of the statute on which discrimination was justified.”
“Religious exemption” laws can threaten other human rights, Lang said. “The same argument—that an individual’s religious beliefs can trump equal protection under the law—conceivably could be used to limit reproductive rights,” he said.
The Coalition’s resolution
■ “reaffirms [General Synod’s] commitment to the full legal protection of the civil rights of all citizens regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity and expression,
■ “calls upon congregations and all settings of the United Church of Christ to advocate for enactment of local, state and federal laws protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons (LGBT) persons against discrimination in public accommodations, housing and employment,
■ “calls upon congregations and all settings of the United Church of Christ to advocate on the basis of faith against legislation or executive actions that aim to establish a broad ‘religious exemption’ to existing or future laws protecting the equal rights of LGBT persons, and
■ “reaffirms the historic commitment of this church to religious freedom, to the right of all churches and faith communities to maintain and advocate for their own beliefs and practices, and to respectful dialogue within the United Church of Christ and with other faith communities on issues concerning human sexuality, human dignity and marriage.”
This General Synod marks the 40th anniversary of the 1975 pronouncement advocating equal rights for lesbian, gay and bisexual persons. In 2003, General Synod went a step further to advocate “for the human and civil rights of transgender people.” But, in the introduction to its resolution, the Coalition argues that “the hope for laws protecting the equal dignity of LGBT Americans is still an unfulfilled dream in 28 states and in thousands of communities across the country.
“Moreover,” it continues, “there is no statutory protection in federal law for LGBT persons in housing or employment. Even where protections exist or might be enacted in the future, proposed laws that seek to establish broad religious exemptions could rob LGBT persons of the security that they will not be denied services, employment or even a place to live on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or marital relationship.”