Op-Ed, 551 words

A Mythical Right to Discriminate

Anti-LGBT activists are masking their bigotry as a quest to protect "religious freedom."


The Supreme Court is now considering cases that could usher in nationwide marriage equality, and state-level gay marriage bans are falling faster than you can say “equal protection under the law.”

People who want to turn back the clock on rights for their lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) neighbors are struggling to find new ways to do so. Public opinion is turning against them, and the courts have followed.

Facing one legal defeat after another, anti-LGBT forces have latched onto a troubling new approach: cloaking discrimination in the language of religious liberty.

In states across the country — including Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wyoming — right-wing legislators have introduced bills that could let business owners and others ignore anti-discrimination laws in the name of religion.

These so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, mostly modeled after a 1993 federal law, sound harmless enough. After all, individual religious freedom is a core principle of our country’s laws, rightly enshrined in the First Amendment. It’s a liberty that must be cherished and protected.



But these bills aren’t really about protecting the rights of religious people — they’re about giving some people the ability to avoid following laws that apply to everyone else. They’re more accurately described as “right to discriminate” bills.

The federal law that these state-level bills were based on was grossly distorted by the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision last year. That ruling turned “religious freedom” from a shield to protect an individual’s right to practice his or her religion into a sword allowing businesses to ignore laws they don’t like — even when it harms others.

With the passage of state-level laws, the risk is that business owners could cite religious beliefs to argue that laws banning discrimination against LGBT people simply don’t apply to them.

From there it’s a slippery slope.

What if business owners claim that their religious beliefs should exempt them from being required to pay minimum wage? And what if people claim religious “exemptions” from laws that protect children and spouses from domestic violence?

This is wrong.

Our country established many years ago that businesses can’t deny service because of the color of a customer’s skin or their ethnic heritage. The same principle should apply here.

Giving business owners the ability to, in essence, hang a “No Gays” sign on their door flies in the face of deeply held American values about dignity and equality.

This isn’t a partisan issue. The widespread concern over state-specific “right to discriminate” laws landed in the national spotlight last year when Arizona governor Jan Brewer — a Republican — vetoed one.

Brewer’s decision followed immense pressure from unexpected sources. Arizona’s Republican senators, major companies like Apple and American Airlines, and even multiple state senators who had initially voted for the bill all came out against it after its implications became clear.

Such legislation failed in several other states last year as well. But this year the bills are resurfacing. Americans who support both religious liberty and equality under the law should speak out against these efforts to disguise anti-gay bigotry as a means of protecting religious freedom.

The belief that all people deserve equal treatment regardless of whom they love prevailed in Arizona. It can prevail across the nation.

Peter Montgomery is a Senior Fellow at People For the American Way.
Distributed via OtherWords.org

  • Alencon

    In law schools in decades to come Hobby Lobby will be right up there with Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson on how the Supreme Court can make a jackass of itself. Come to think of it, we can throw Citizens United in there as well.

    My fear is that shortly we’ll have two more judicial disasters from the Roberts court when they decide that federal insurance exchanges can’t provide subsidies and they somehow figure out a way to let states restrict gay marriage.

    I lived through the 60s and 70s without giving up on this country but right now I’m this close to throwing my hands up in the air and moving to Amsterdam.

    • Sunny

      Please go.

  • Kyle

    Assuming most of those who advocate for religious freedom laws claim to be Christian, how can they rightly justify favoring such overt discrimination given the words of Jesus in the Gospels: “Do to others what you want them to do to you?” I seem to remember this being called the Golden Rule.

    • Sunny

      It works both ways.

      • Bill

        You sound smart. Please explain how ‘christians’ fighting for a right to treat others badly ‘works both ways.’

  • disqus_lQF0vidZgf

    Thank you for saying what I have for what seems like forever but you do so much better than I could ever. I want to know how states manage to basically make abortion illegal. Is it because they don’t actually make them illegal but make laws so restrictive, expensive or laws protecting the ‘fetus’ from conception they’re able to do so?
    Thank you.
    Or as I’ve also been saying: I wonder how many people & places will suddenly find religion.

  • UncleMonkey

    Well, kick me down the stairs for a bigot, but I think the Hobby Lobby decision was right. My wife and I have a small restaurant, with a clear if unpublished rule: No Males Need Apply. I haven’t found working with men satisfying, and I figure they’d be likely to try to push our wonderful women around. Perhaps make fun of our delightful gay nieces. Am I unfair? Most likely, but it’s my restaurant, my time and my money. Do I have some duty to ignore my own druthers and expectations when I hire people I’m going to spend a lot of time around?

    If I can choose my friends, my barber, my regular taxi and so on based on whatever factors I like, why do I suddenly have to be as evenhanded as the federal government when I hire a dishwasher? I think a lot of conservative Christian beliefs are bizarre—no, I think they’re *all* bizarre—but I also think that until people have enormous economic power, they should be left to hire whom they choose. (And shouldn’t be allowed to hang onto enormous economic power however they behave, but that’s another issue.)