When the U.S. Supreme Court declared that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, it was a moment of joy - and relief - for the majority of Americans.
But for the Religious Right and other fundamentalists, it was something else entirely: a nightmare scenario come true. And in the wake of the high court's June 26 decision, some county clerks huffed and puffed about their supposed "religious freedom" right to refuse to deal with gay couples - even though the Supreme Court's decision made no allowance for such behavior.
Yet we are seeing around the country a concerted effort to undermine the high court's ruling by insisting that government employees have a "religious freedom" right to ignore it. At the same time, "religious freedom" is being invoked by corporations as an excuse to curtail women's access to birth control, by bakers and photographers who don't want to deal with LGBT clients and even by doctors who are refusing to tend to the children of same-sex parents.
This cannot continue. In an effort to fight back against these warped definitions of religious freedom, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has launched the "Protect Thy Neighbor" project. It will emphasize issues like LGBT rights, marriage equality, women's access to health care and the basic right of all Americans to access government services free of discrimination.
You may notice that the name of this new initiative has a biblical ring to it. That is intentional. All religions (and secular philosophies) teach the idea that we should look out for and care for one another. Sadly, the Religious Right and its ilk often do the exact opposite when they work to take away the rights of their fellow citizens.
So we're putting them on notice: Your attempt to use religious freedom as a shield for bigotry and an assault on human dignity won't be tolerated.
Protect Thy Neighbor will focus on three major areas:
* Government relations: AU's Legislative Department will identify and defeat dangerous bills and legislative proposals that would transform religious liberty from an important constitutional principle into a cudgel to be used against others. With the help of AU chapters and allies around the country, Americans United will keep people informed about what's going on in their states and communities.
* Litigation and legal work: If harmful legislation becomes law, AU's Legal Department will work to challenge these measures in court. Our track record in this area is already strong. We've represented women at the University of Notre Dame who are seeking access to birth control and same-sex couples in Alabama who had to fight in court for the right to marry.
* Public education: Using social media and other forms of public outreach, Americans United will educate Americans about the threat posed by the Religious Right's definition of "religious liberty" and give them the tools to counter the far right's efforts.
A new website - www.protectthyneighbor.org - will promote the project, update information regularly and serve to inform and advise anyone who believes their First Amendment rights have been violated. If you have been denied your rights because of someone else's religion, we want to hear from you.
The need for this project is great. Nationwide, the Religious Right and its allies are in the midst of a fierce resistance to the growing rights of LGBT Americans, women, non-believers and religious minorities.
In Rowan County, Kentucky, Kim Davis, the county clerk, turned away everyone who wanted to get married rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She instructed them to go to another county instead.
In Hood County, Texas, clerk Katie Lang also refused to issue licenses to same-sex couples. In Alabama, a handful of probate judges - county officials who are responsible for issuing marriage licenses - have refused to serve same-sex couples as well. Americans United and its allies had to go to court to force them into compliance.
In Tennessee, some legislators have seriously suggested "nullifying," a fancy word for "ignoring" the Supreme Court's ruling on marriage equality.
Unfortunately, anti-gay discrimination extends beyond government employees. In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision, Amyx Hardware & Roofing Supplies in Grainger County, Tenn., posted a sign that read, "No Gays Allowed." The sign was later changed to read: "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone who would violate our rights of freedom of speech & freedom of religion." It remains unclear how a same-sex couple shopping in a hardware store could possibly violate the rights of anyone.
This sort of religious-based bullying must be overcome. At Americans United, we believe strongly that the constitutionally guaranteed right to religious freedom does not permit anyone to use their personal beliefs as a weapon to harm others.
Protect Thy Neighbor is a direct assault on the Religious Right's warped concept of free exercise. I hope everyone, regardless of their beliefs, will join us in opposing this fundamentalist threat to the rights of all Americans.
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