American Prospect Examines Religious Liberty, The Next Front In The Culture Wars

(J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

Gabriel Arana has a great piece today at The American Prospect, examining the idea of “religious liberty” and what it means for the culture wars. As we’ve seen recently with the Senate’s passage of ENDA, the Religious Right, having essentially lost, is trying to carve out exemptions for themselves so that they won’t have to abide by the same rules as everyone else.

Protections for religious organizations have become a standard part of gay-rights legislation; they are typically included in anti-discrimination legislation and bills recognizing same-sex marriage. But for groups like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, those contained in ENDA are not enough. “The bill’s religious freedom protection,” the conference wrote in a letter distributed to each member of the Senate, “covers only a subset of religious employers, and as a result of recent litigation, is uncertain in scope.” Conservative religious organizations and thinkers are sounding the alarm, saying the legislation poses a dire threat to religious liberty. Drawing on exemptions contained in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the bill’s religious-liberty provision ensures that the law does not apply to institutions like churches or to religiously affiliated universities or nonprofits. Another amendment offered by Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania would have expanded the universe of exempted groups to include for-profit businesses. It failed by a vote of 43 to 55.

The article explains something that all progressive gay rights activists know to be true — that essentially all of us support laws protecting clergy from being forced to marry gay couples — and shows that it’s basically a fake complaint from the Religious Right, meant to rile people up and make the Religious Right look like victims.

Wayne Besen is quoted, explaining what the Religious Right is really after with all these “religious freedom” exemptions:

The deeper question in the debate over religious liberty raises is whether sexual orientation and gender identity should be classified and protected in the same way race is. No one today makes the argument that a for-profit employer should be able to deny services to blacks or Asians; the public consensus has become that racial discrimination deserves no place in society. It is religious conservatives’ great fear that moral opposition to homosexuality and same-sex unions will assume the same status.

That is the goal of some gay-rights supporters who think objections to homosexuality and same-sex unions are ultimately based on irrational hatred for gays and lesbians. Wayne Besen, a gay-rights advocate and founder of Truth Wins Out, says exemptions for religious institutions are “an attempt to rationalize discrimination.” “They’re saying they want freedom of religion but what they’re saying freedom of religion means freedom from those who aren’t religious,” he says. “They’re arguing for a parallel set of laws.” Besen says he fears the religious-liberty protections create room for the very sort of discrimination laws like ENDA are trying to prohibit. “You can invoke religion anytime and that’s a big mistake,” he says. “This exception creates another form of discrimination.”

In essence, the Religious Right, the very people these sorts of laws are meant to protect Americans from, is asking for a big exemption that says that all they have to do is cry “religious freedom!” and they won’t have to provide services to people they don’t like. They want this exemption to cover far, far more than their houses of worship, as we’ve seen with bakers and photographers who don’t want to work on same-sex weddings because they think they’re icky.

This is indeed the next front in these so-called “culture wars,” and this fight will be going long after marriage equality has come to all fifty states.

Read the whole thing.