Hurting More Than You Protect: Religious Freedom Takes on the Power to Kill

It is widely believed that members of the LGBT community suffer from much higher rates of substance abuse than the general population; twenty to thirty percent of LGBT individuals are believed to be substance abusers compared to nine percent of the general public. Substance abuse is twice as prevalent among LGBT youth as their straight peers. Why is that the case? Any time any group suffers ongoing discrimination, bullying, trauma, etc., we can expect to see higher than average substance abuse rates in that group.

My high school US history course taught that we all have a place at the lunch counter. Anyone who walks into your bakery and wants to buy a cake should be offered a cake. Mechanics should service all cars, no matter who owns them. All of us need to use public restrooms from time to time. Fathers need access to public restrooms where they can assist young daughters and women need the same type of facilities to help their elderly fathers. Transgender individuals get to use those facilities with the rest of us too. The laws in Mississippi and North Carolina protecting "deeply held religious beliefs" aren't about wedding cakes or public restrooms per se. They are part a system of ongoing abuse that subjects LGBT individuals to discrimination and violence, two issues that can create a foundation for substance abuse later in life.

Tennessee is going a step further, proposing that therapists should be able to refuse service to LGBT individuals. This is antithetical to the guidelines and ethics codes of every major therapeutic organization in the nation; if you go into counseling, therapy, social work, or chaplaincy as a profession, you go into it knowing that you will serve and support to the best of your ability any person who walks through the door. Imagine a gay youth in a rural school where there is only one counselor, being denied assistance with college applications because of the "deeply held" religious beliefs of the school counselor. An individual could be denied access to addiction treatment that his/her insurance covers at the only nearby facility, because the services are offered by a religious group. Sometimes, there are no other options; we can't always go to another service provider.

These laws are not about religious freedom. The concept of religious freedom is that each of us is free to worship however we want, but we may not impose those beliefs on others. A therapist who opens a practice takes whoever seeks his/her aid. A baker bakes cakes, bread, or cookies for those with the money to buy them. It is no issue at all to offer "family" or non-gendered bathrooms so that all sorts of people can use the facilities safely and in peace.

As an addiction researcher, I can report without question that people who suffer discrimination are at increased risk of many different physical, economic, and mental health issues: addiction included. We cannot allow these laws to stand.