With every passing day, the social and political landscapes of the nation change. Throughout, an ever-increasing number of cities, counties and states are adopting measures that seek to provide full protection of the law to all United States citizens. We’ve seen laws and court decisions in support of marriage equality from coast to coast. We see non-discrimination laws passing in municipalities from rural Utah to urban New York, as well as at the federal level with the resurgence of the debate over the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).
As more and more ground is gained in the struggle for equality under law, we see, unfortunately, new and inventive forms of backlash. One of the more recent trends is to insert into law a “right of religious conscience” exemption, which is essentially a way to allow discrimination and bigotry, as long as one labels it as religious in nature. Such an exemption exists not only in the current version of ENDA, but is also being proposed into law in several states and municipalities.
In addition to the blank check this exemption provides religious organizations to discriminate at will, it also establishes a precedent for allowing anyone to discriminate as long as they claim it’s based upon their religious beliefs. While it’s important that we recognize and support the freedom of religion, it is just as important to note that discrimination and bigotry are not religious values.
As a wise man once said, “Your freedom to swing your fist ends when it impacts my face.” Living in a society means that we accept certain limits on our individual liberties in order to preserve freedom for all. Religion is a protected freedom in this country, each of us has the right to believe and worship, or not, according to the dictates of our own conscience. That freedom, however, does not include the right to harm others based upon those beliefs.
Discrimination is harmful. In this specific context, discrimination prevents people from working to support their families, providing actual financial and material harm to individuals, families and society as a whole. Saying “God told me to” doesn’t make it right, and it sure as hell shouldn’t make it legal.
We live in a nation that was ostensibly founded upon the promise of equality for all, under the law. When we enshrine into law the ability for one group of people to subjugate another based upon any criteria, we abandon that fundamental premise, and we all suffer. That is what these “religious conscience exemptions” institutionalize: the subjugation of people in the name of another person’s proclaimed belief.
How would a member of one religion react to being denied employment or housing because they didn’t share the religion of another? Once we start down this path, we allow anyone to violate the law as long as they claim it’s in the name of their religion. How far are we prepared to go in allowing exemptions to the law based upon religion?
As we move into this next phase in the struggle for equality, it is imperative that we remain strong and remain focused. The powers behind the continued oppression of the LGBT community are not going to stop at opposing equality measures, they will seek to undermine them and make them as ineffective as possible.
As more and more of these groups take up the “religious liberty” mantra, we need to be talking about what that really means. This isn’t a discussion about religious freedom, it’s a discussion about discrimination. And while there are still racists and bigots among us, that number decreases with every passing day. The overwhelming majority of people, both in Utah and nationwide, oppose discrimination. We need to keep the conversation in those terms: discrimination. If we allow them to frame the debate in terms of religion we will have a much tougher uphill battle ahead of us.