Posted By Eric Ethington on August 22, 2014
Do the principles of religious freedom (a.k.a. religious liberty) mandate exemptions from employment and workplace non-discrimination laws? According to many conservatives in Utah, yes. But while these Religious Right leaders claim to be championing the rights of the religious, their theocratic redefinition of these important concepts leave every individual at risk.
Less than a few weeks after the Salt Lake City Council passed Utah’s first non-discrimination law in November of 2009, prohibiting employment and housing discrimination on the sole basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, the local affiliate of the State Policy Network, Sutherland Institute, began a full-blown press push for what they called “religious exemptions.” According to Sutherland president Paul Mero, business owners and apartment complex owners who had personal religious objections to LGBTQ people should be exempted from the new law and allowed to fire LGBTQ people from their jobs or evict them from their homes without consequence.
This religious exemptions argument was not unique to Mero and Sutherland, but was part of a nationwide undertaking by Religious Right leaders—particularly from the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF, now doing business as Alliance Defending Freedom, which rose to prominence providing legal counsel and defense for Prop 8 in California—to begin using this new strategy more aggressively. The same argument had been used to attempt to derail civil rights laws several decades ago by the precursors conservative organizations to Sutherland, ADF, and the Heritage Foundation, such as the racist John Birch Society. The arguments had failed back then, but with new packaging and better PR spin, the Right predicted that they could have much more success today. And they were right.
The arguments have taken hold and while every year more conservative Republicans in Utah seem to resign to the inevitability of the passage of a statewide version of the non-discrimination laws (every reputable poll shows roughly 73 percent support for the laws among the public), almost without exception you can hear each of them call for a change to the language of the proposed law, allowing for such religious exemptions.
Sutherland Institute themselves launched a new initiative this last year as a kind of last-ditch-effort to slow the inevitable passage of the bill. Presented as a coalition of Religious Right organizations, Sutherland partnered with the local affiliate of the Eagle Forum, as well as the local affiliate of Family Watch International (one of the conservative evangelical organizations involved in the creation of the “kill the gays” bill in Uganda and other African nations) to form “FairToAll,” which they use to attempt to hammer home their claims about the nature of religious liberty.
It is no coincidence that the website for this new group was registered by none other than the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, which was not only involved in Prop 8, but also the Hobby Lobby SCOTUS case, and was also one of the primary authors of the infamous Arizona “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which would have allowed business owners to use supposed faith objections to not only discriminate against LGBTQ employees but to also reject LGBTQ customers as well. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to guess that ADF provided much of the funding for the FairToAll project, which included weeks of expensive prime-time television ads (one of which Sutherland was forced to take down for outright lying about the bill forcing BYU to allow mixed-gender dorm rooms).
So with such a massive buildup, hundreds of thousands of dollars spent, and a nationally-coordinated campaign to promote religious exemptions, is there actually anything to their claims.
According to Tarso Luís Ramos and Fred Clarkson of the nonprofit Political Research Associates, the religious liberty claims Utah conservatives are putting forward are deeply twisted versions of the what the nation’s founders put forward.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” The First Amendment to the Constitution begins with this foundational defense of individual conscience against the edicts of religious institutions backed by the coercive power of government. We may have different views of how we can protect religious liberty for the sake of everyone, but until recently there has been a rough consensus that religious liberty centers primarily on maintaining the rights of individuals.
This foundational principle, and our common understanding of what it means, is facing a sustained, coordinated attack from leaders of the religious right, who insist that businesses have the right to discriminate against employees and customers according to their owners’ religious beliefs. This redefinition of religious liberty effectively transforms the Framers’ shield against religious tyranny into a sword institutions can wield to impose religious dictates on individuals in the marketplace.
In other words, Utah conservatives are attempting to take the principle meant to protect each and every individual’s right to believe (or not) as they see fit, free from pressure or coercion from a state-backed institution, and give it solely to business owners and landlords by endowing them with the right to use claimed religious beliefs to harm others who do not conform to their personal religious views.
The true principle of religious freedom is already built-in to the non-discrimination laws—allowing for LGBTQ employees and tenants to live without harassment, while business owners and landlords are remain free to believe whatever their conscience or religion dictates.
Isn’t that how a society based on religious pluralism supposed to work? We are all allowed to believe as we will, as long as we don’t use those beliefs to harm others?