‘Religious Exemption’ laws threaten LGBT rights

The rash of new “religious exemption” laws passed by state legislatures around the United States represent a thinly-veiled assault against the rights of LGBT people, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. In the absence of robust nondiscrimination protections, these laws function as a license to discriminate rather than a good faith attempt to protect religious liberty and should be repealed.

The report, “‘All We Want is Equality’: Religious Exemptions and Discrimination against LGBT People in the United States,” documents how recent laws carve out space to discriminate against LGBT people in adoption and foster care, healthcare, and access to some goods and services. These laws fail to balance moral and religious objections to LGBT relationships and identities with the rights of LGBT people themselves, Human Rights Watch found. The findings illustrate that these exemptions encourage discriminatory refusals, discourage LGBT people from seeking out services, and harm people’s dignity.

“Describing these laws as ‘exemptions’ is misleading,” said Ryan Thoreson, a researcher in the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch. “Given the dearth of laws that protect LGBT people from discrimination in the first place, legislators are getting it exactly backward and creating exceptions before they’ve ever established the rule.”

“Religious freedom is an important value, but these laws don’t respond to any real-world threat to religious freedom and are more about legitimizing discrimination,” continued Thoreson in an exclusive interview. “The debates around these laws are a direct response to same-sex marriage being recognized across the U.S. and a concern that people who want to discriminate against LGBT people won’t be able to do that if LGBT people are protected.

Resistance to LGBT equality is the primary motivation for these laws, not a concern for religious freedom. Just look at some of the laws. In Mississippi, the law protects the belief that marriage is between a man and woman, that sex outside of that marriage in any form is unacceptable, and that gender identity is immutable and fixed at birth. That’s not a protection of religious freedom, that’s a protection of one particular type of religious viewpoint.”

Additionally, LGBT people are often “discriminated against by healthcare providers or businesses. It illustrates that these laws fall on very fertile ground for further discrimination — they’re essentially telling providers they’ve got a green light from the state to discriminate against people.”

Even if people, in some states, are not directly refused services, religious exemptions cause LGBT people to fear discrimination and deter them from seeking services.

“One of the things I was reminded of from the interviews is that LGBT people have often faced intense discrimination from the faith communities and churches they grew up in. Historically some faith communities have been active in anti-LGBT efforts or have struggled with including LGBT people within their denominations.

People I spoke with mentioned that if you go to a doctor’s office that identifies itself as a Christian provider, or has overtly religious imagery on the walls, LGBT people will worry the provider is not LGBT-friendly. Something providers can voluntarily do is to be welcoming. For example, a doctor who is religious, but also committed to doing no harm and to serving everyone, can make their office an LGBT-affirming space. It can be really important to place signals that they are open to all clients.”

For the entire interview with Ryan Thoreson click here:

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