So-called “Religious Freedom” Laws Hurt, Don’t Help, Religion

Americans were rattled recently when a draft memo by the Trump Administration was leaked that outlined a potential executive order on so-called “religious liberty.”

The draft memo could have circumvented federal and state anti-discrimination laws and opened the door to widespread discrimination, including denying jobs, adoption, government services, and harassment against LGBTQ teachers, faculty, and students.

The executive order outlined in the memo has not yet come to fruition. However, similar bills using the misnomer of “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” are being submitted in state legislatures across the country. But who is calling for these invasive laws? Not who you might think.

There is near consensus among religious groups on the issue of religiously based service refusals. Roughly six in ten (61 percent) Americans oppose allowing a small business owner in their state to refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people, if doing so violates their religious beliefs. That includes not only large majorities of groups who strongly support same-sex marriage, including Unitarian/Universalists (87 percent), Buddhists (76 percent), and Jewish Americans (72 percent), but also majorities of even major religious groups who are divided over or opposed to same-sex marriage.

Why don’t people of faith support discrimination against LGBTQ people? Simply put, it’s because discrimination is not a religious value. Refusing to sell a product or provide a service doesn’t make anyone a better Christian, Jew, Muslim, or any other faith. In fact, for many of these faiths, the test of faith is not who is excluded, but who is included and cared for.

The prophet Isaiah called out people for participating in ostentatious displays of worship while harming the needy among them. Isaiah clearly stated that God much favors justice to be done than loud proclamations of faith.

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58: 6-7)

In one of Jesus’ best-known parables, he divides the people of earth up into two categories, those who helped and served the hungry, the homeless, the stranger, and the prisoner, and those who did not.

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’” (Matthew 25:41-43)

For Christians who claim to follow the bible, the message is clear; being a person of faith means you help those in need.

It is in keeping with scripture passages and stories like these that faith leaders are speaking out against discrimination against anyone, including LGBTQ people. In Texas, while Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick promoted a bill to anti-LGBTQ faith leaders that would restrict public accommodations for transgender people among, dozens of faith leaders held a press conference at the Texas Capitol, denouncing the discrimination in the proposed bill.

This movement for faith for justice is not new, and in fact has deep roots in our country’s history. Since 2013, the Rev. William Barber has led the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina. Moral Mondays holds faithful witnesses at the North Carolina capitol, focusing on LGBTQ justice as well as immigrant and worker’s rights, criminal justice, environmental issues and others.

Before Rev. Barber, Christian history has witnessed Dorothy Day, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Cone, Walter Rauschenbusch, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Margaret Wedgwood Benn, St. Francis of Assisi, and so many others, calling us to live out our faith in a way that builds people up, rather than tear down.

Faith leaders will continue to heed the call for justice and care for those who are being harmed by so-called “religious freedom” laws. We will call for a faith marked by love and justice, rather than by discrimination and exclusion. We are not just fighting for the soul of our country, but the future of our faith.