Misusing Religious Freedom to Cloak Intolerance

Opposing gay and transgender equality under the guise of religious freedom has deep roots stretching back more than 50 years.

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Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton defends the rights of gay and transgender people from around the world in a speech entitled
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton defends the rights of gay and transgender people from around the world in a speech entitled "Free and Equal in Dignity and Rights" at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on December 6, 2011, International Human Rights Day. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

At a conference last spring, the head of the Virginia Catholic Conference spelled out the strategy that his group used to pass a state law allowing private adoption and foster care organizations receiving state funds to reject same-sex couples applying to care for children. Jeffrey F. Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, said his organization modeled its bill on similar legislation in North Dakota—the first state in the nation to pass such a law. Caruso was careful to emphasize that he and his organization were not breaking new ground in the legislation. After going through the messaging that helped the bill to pass, Caruso urged conference participants to return to their states and pass similar laws in order to “lock in conscience protections while we still can.”

The conference at which Caruso spoke was sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and focused on “rising threats to religious liberty.” One speaker after another warned that religious freedoms were under unprecedented assault, especially when it came to sexual matters involving contraception and gay and transgender rights.* Listening to them you might have thought that anti-God forces were everywhere, punishing “good” people for their traditional views and harassing them for their refusal to bow down to a dangerous secular ideology.

Indeed, Caruso lamented that although his organization had acted thoughtfully and out of conscience—even going so far as to showcase birth mothers who shared their values and offer statistics highlighting how many children Catholic Charities served in Virginia—and even though the adoption bill passed—the story line in the news was that religious agencies wanted to be exempt from laws forbidding discrimination.

The frustration of Caruso and others at the conference was palpable. Why were their religious beliefs—the same beliefs that made this nation great, they argued—now seen as expressions of intolerance and bigotry? Why wasn’t their moral vigilance valued? How had they failed to make the public heed this crisis and understand the ominous future we would all face if religious liberty lost and the secularists won?

Such cries of alarm have only increased since last spring. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is leading the charge, which has resulted in dozens of lawsuits against the Obama administration for a contraceptive-coverage requirement in the health care law. Even though the law provides clear religious exemptions and broad protections for religiously affiliated institutions, conservative religious leaders are ratcheting up their warnings of religious-liberty infringements and assaults on conscience.

What’s more, conservatives are setting up religious-liberty caucuses in states across the country. One of the goals of this effort is to pass laws with broad exemptions allowing those who oppose reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, adoption by same-sex couples, and other measures of gay and transgender equality the ability to opt out of antidiscrimination laws and policies without being sued.

This is not a new political strategy. It turns out we’ve been down this road before. In fact it is a road that has deep and all-too-familiar ruts from similar fights decades ago. During the civil rights battle in the 1960s, for example, segregationists used religious justifications to oppose interracial marriage and integration. God created the races to be separate, they argued, which was why he put them on separate continents. To support any kind of race mixing—whether in stores, restaurants, movie theaters, schools, churches, or businesses—was a sin. Civil rights opponents denied they were bigoted. On the contrary, they were simply following biblical teachings and obeying God’s will. Forcing them to abide by civil rights laws would be a grave violation of their conscience and an assault on their religious liberty.

Fortunately, segregationists did not get the religious exemptions they desired. Even though their views on race reflected those of a large proportion of Americans at the time, they were required to follow the law. Fifty years later, the wisdom of that approach is clear. Being obligated to follow the law changed the behavior of a critical mass of people and, over time, changed their attitudes and beliefs as well. Opponents of racial equality today are free to preach and speak their views—but they cannot refuse to obey the law.

The same is true regarding women’s equality. Religious institutions such as the Catholic Church are free to deny women leadership positions in their houses of worship because of their beliefs, but they cannot refuse to hire or promote a qualified woman at religiously affiliated hospitals, universities, or charities.

Now it’s true that today’s battle for gay and transgender equality is separate and distinct from the battle for racial equality in the 1960s, as well as the fight for women’s equality in the 1970s. But it’s also true that there are instructive parallels among them.

As battles over contraception and gay and transgender equality heat up in the coming months, we would do well to remember these parallels, especially when it comes to demands for religious exemptions. Imagine if civil rights laws had been shot through with religious exemptions 50 years ago and those opposed to racial equality had been given license to uphold segregation. Discrimination would’ve been codified under the guise of religious liberty. Bigotry would’ve been called freedom of conscience.

Last week two polls came out that showed rising support for marriage equality, as well as rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law passed in 1996 that defined marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman. These shifting views are not so different from those of a half-century ago, when opposition to racial equality began to be seen less as a legitimate religious belief and more as a misguided notion that deserved no legal support.

To say this is not to deny that such beliefs are insincere or lightly held. But it is to say that religious beliefs and moral understandings grow over time, and we have come to see matters of justice and equality in a new light. This is a good thing. And so, while we should certainly respect the genuinely held religious and moral beliefs of those opposing antidiscrimination policies for gay and transgender Americans, we also need to make certain that those beliefs are not codified into law.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

* In this column the term “gay” is an umbrella term for people that identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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