Let’s Call ‘Religious Freedom’ by Its Real Name: Poisonous, Anti-LGBTQ Bigotry

Tim Teeman
Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg via Getty

Religious zealots don’t think LGBTQ people should be able to get married. They don’t think they should be able to have, adopt, or foster children. And they really don’t like the presence of laws enshrining the equality of LGBTQ people, or laws that afford them equal treatment when it comes to leading their lives as fellow American citizens, like becoming foster and adoptive parents.

Hence, on Friday, the explosion of another homophobic stun grenade by the anti-LGBTQ Trump administration.

LGBT Alarm as President Trump Signs ‘Religious Liberty’ Executive Order

The Department of Health and Human Services announced that it was introducing new federal rules that meant faith-based groups could ignore any Obama-era nondiscrimination regulations.

Under the proposed new rules, taxpayer-funded foster care and adoption agencies can cite “religious beliefs” as a reason to deny placement of children into homes of LGBTQ couples—simply on the basis of those couples being LGBTQ.

Under the proposal, all the discrimination protections in HHS’ grant programs would be eliminated. 

As The Washington Post reported, this wouldn’t just mean that faith-based groups can finally discriminate against prospective LGBTQ parents, as they have long so desired to do. It will also apply for other HHS grants around HIV and sexually transmitted disease prevention, other public health initiatives, health education, and prekindergarten programs.

It is, simply, bigotry enshrined in law; cruelty written into statute. Church and State are currently the very opposite of separated; they are dancing a delirious tango, with LGBTQ rights trampled underfoot.

“Religious liberty” and “religious freedom” are now the twinned rallying call for anyone wishing to decline service to LGBTQ people, or diminish their rights and access to equality—and the Trump administration squarely supports it (indeed, the president signed a religious liberty executive order in 2018).

This is the new way of expressing anti-LGBTQ prejudice. Without explicitly stating that you hate LGBTQ people, or wish to deny them equality, you can say that you’re upholding your religious liberty or freedom instead. 

It’s a neat trick: you’re the bully, out to attack or diminish an LGBTQ person, but you’re playing the victim, unfairly put upon by having to treat the LGBTQ person equally and fairly. 

This absurdity was encapsulated in the best question at last month’s CNN/HRC Democratic candidates’ Town Hall when audience member Andrew Beaudoin asked Pete Buttigieg: “As a Christian, can you point me to any teachings or faith which state things like, ‘Thou shall not serve the gays meatloaf in diner’”? 

LGBTQ people have been under sustained attack for the three years of the Trump administration, with “religious freedom” and “religious liberty” the now all-too-familiar battering rams of choice.

Renowned homophobe Vice President Mike Pence is apparently on a mission to cause as much misery to LGBTQ people as possible, and Trump himself—an adulterer and alleged sexual assaulter of women—has become close buddies with the religious right.

Their transactional relationship is darkly absurd, the hypocrisy laughable were it not so vindictive in intent. Both parties need each other. Trump needs evangelical support in 2020, and the religious right need him to help realize their anti-LGBTQ animus in legislation. Kismet.

Do true Christians realize that the new HHS rules will hurt people—LGBTQ people, sure, but also children who need love and loving homes? 

That is probably the sickest aspect of this enactment of prejudice; everything that the religious right says it holds dear—the protection of family life and well-being of children—they are happy to destroy to pursue their crusade against LGBTQ people. Of course, they maintain that LGBTQ people should not be anywhere near children; that they cannot be parents.

There is no rational reason behind this virulent desire to discriminate. Beyond it seeming utterly un-Christian, there is no scientific, proven rationale that LGBTQ adoptive or foster parents make worse parents than straight people purely on the basis of their sexual and gender identities.

All that lies behind the proposals is prejudice, and the religious right’s single-minded determination to roll back as many LGBTQ advances and protections as possible. The HHS announcement was their latest success under Trump. The political winds are currently in their favor.

On Oct. 29, Brian Brown, the National Organization for Marriage’s co-founder and president of the World Congress of Families, tweeted a photo of himself with two SCOTUS justices, Brett Kavanaugh and Samuel Alito.

The justices were criticized. They are presently considering three high-profile LGBTQ discrimination cases, to which Brown and NOM had submitted an anti-equality amicus filing. Why were Kavanaugh and Alito happy to pose with Brown in this context? What does it say about their impartiality?

Pence and the administration’s other religious-minded zealots (and supportive groups like NOM) are most furious about marriage equality, and so—ever since it was established in federal law—have set about chipping away at it in any malign way they can. “Religious liberty” and “religious freedom” have become their charge-words.

In 2015, as governor of Indiana, Pence signed into law the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which—after much outrage from equality organizations and big business—was amended to protect LGBTQ people.

“Religious liberty” and “religious freedom”: These benign-sounding phrases don’t mean—as they sound—being free to go to your church, and/or worship whatever it is you believe in, and/or try to freely exercise the godly qualities of compassion and goodness towards your fellow humans. Or to simply cherish your faith.

Instead, these phrases mean: attack LGBTQ people, attack their hard-won (and still shamefully few) legal advances and protections in the courts and in law, and all this under the guise that you are being attacked by having to treat them as equal human beings.

So far, there is no sustained political fightback against this outrageous, and growing, attack on LGBTQ rights. The right-wing sponsored court cases—like Masterpiece Bakery—keep coming. The rights of LGBTQ Americans to be treated equally are not a given or safe (the Equality Act is stalled; the Supreme Court is currently considering whether it should be OK to fire LGBTQ people).

LGBTQ people’s ability to simply live equally alongside their neighbors is—for some reason—up for debate and legal challenge.

Trump has embraced the “religious freedom” wrecking ball wholeheartedly. The media and Americans generally have stood idly by as the straw-man arguments have taken hold in state and federal courtrooms. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions even set up a Religious Liberty Task Force, to make this anti-LGBTQ crusade an inter-departmental affair.

The right wing, so long the bullies, who could attack and demonize LGBTQ people with impunity, realized that overtly hateful narrative was wearing thin and losing support.

Their new narrative, as it has become with so many powerful people with influence and money, is to cast themselves as victims and the bullied. It’s a gaslighting exercise. And still, just as when they voiced their homo- and transphobia more freely, the victims are LGBTQ people, who are simply asking for legal equality, and to be treated equally and fairly in their communities.

Politicians, so nervous about religion, do not know how to confront the nebulous straw man; and the Trump administration has been placing judges in courts—including the Supreme Court—who would swing favorably to “religious liberty” arguments.

And so, the gnarly problem, which really shouldn’t be a problem, becomes how to counter the “religious liberty” bandwagon. Who will be brave enough to confront and neuter this corrosive coming together of faith and policy-making?

One approach is to face it directly. When asked at the CNN/HRC town hall, “Do you think religious institutions—like colleges, churches, charities—should lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage?” Beto O’Rourke, who has now left the Democratic presidential nonination race, responded, “Yes. There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break, for anyone or any institution, any organization in America, that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us.”

Buttigieg himself told Andrew Beaudoin that night: “Without telling others how to worship, the Christian tradition that I belong to instructs me to identify with the marginalized and to recognize that the greatest thing that any of us has to offer is love.

“Religious liberty is an important principle in this country, and we honor that. It’s also the case that any freedom that we honor in this country has limits when it comes to harming other people… The right to religious freedom ends where religion is being used as an excuse to harm other people.”

“When religion is used in that way, to me, it makes God smaller,” Buttigieg added. “It to me is an insult, not only to us as LGBTQ people, but I think it’s an insult to faith, to believe that it could be used to hurt people in that way.”

In late October, Buttigieg told Mara Keisling, founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, “The freedom to religious expression—which is very important to me personally—does not mean that you can harm people in the name of religion and say that’s OK.”

Buttigieg was speaking as part of the NCTE’s “Transform the White House” series of candidate interviews. He added, “My message to fellow people of faith on this issue is to remember that when you have policies that try to invoke religion as a way to harm people or exclude people, that isn't just an insult to the separation of church and state—it’s an insult to religion. Every faith tradition I know of, certainly the Christian tradition I belong to, speaks so much about needing to support those who are marginalized, those who are most vulnerable, those who are ostracized. 

“The entire New Testament is full of stories that teach us about the importance of lifting one another up. And what you see is, in my view, a very narrow, dim, and even backwards idea of what religion is about when people would use it as a pretext to exclude trans Americans or any Americans.”

These are heartening, powerful words, especially from a high-profile Christian gay man aspiring to the highest office in the land. They show the humane breadth of what “faith” can mean, but alas they do not address the tougher question: What would a progressive president like Buttigieg actually do to protect LGBTQ people add rights from these relentless “religious freedom” attacks?

To journalist Adam Wren on Sunday, Buttigieg appeared to go further, raising the possibility of “enforcing anti-discrimination expectations, even on private organizations, and I think that bar goes even higher when we’re talking about anybody seeking federal funds.”

That is an evolution, but how? And it will be cold comfort to all those LGBTQ people negatively impacted by the HHS’ attack on their ability to be loving parents, or to access healthcare services; and to those affected by whatever new attacks in the guise of “religious freedom” and “religious liberty” are to come.

The HHS’ move shows that the right wing was never going to stop at defending those poor, persecuted bakers being asked to make wedding cakes for gay couples.

The Trump administration and its supporters intend to use “religious liberty” and “religious freedom” to inflict as much damage on LGBTQ people and rights as they can—bullies causing as much pain as possible, while all the time playing the whining victims.

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