March 23, 2016 at 12:32 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Civil rights leaders condemn ‘religious freedom’ bills
Wade Henderson, gay news, Washington Blade

‘There can be no religious exemption from basic human dignity,’ said Wade Henderson, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. (Photo courtesy of the USDA)

The nation’s preeminent mainline civil rights organization released a report on Monday asserting that “religious freedom” arguments used to justify discrimination against LGBT people in dozens of bills pending in state legislatures is rooted in past efforts in the United States to support slavery and racial segregation on religious grounds.

The Leadership Conference Education Fund, the educational arm of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, announced the release of the report during a conference call in which the organization’s president and CEO Wade Henderson called the latest crop of religious freedom legislation an “ugly justification of bigotry.”

Henderson was joined by Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign; Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce; and Gretchen Borchelt, vice president for reproductive rights and health at the National Women’s Law Center.

“Religious rationalizations have been used to defend slavery and Jim Crow segregation, oppose rights for women, and promote discrimination against Muslims,” according to the report, called Striking a Balance: Advancing Civil and Human Rights While Preserving Religious Liberty.

“Recently, the concept of religious liberty has been corrupted by those seeking to devise legal and political strategies to oppose and undermine protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” the report says.

A Leadership Conference statement says the 22-page report released on Monday is an updated version of an earlier report raising objections to and outlining legal and political strategies for opposing more than 100 “religious freedom” bills that have been introduced in states throughout the country.

The report notes that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby appears to have set the stage for the religious freedom bills. The court ruling reinterpreted the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Congress passed in the early 1990s with strong bipartisan support for the purpose of protecting religious minorities.

Under the high court’s new interpretation, for-profit corporations could make a “religious exercise” claim under RFRA, an interpretation that the report says opens the way for legislation to exempt non-religious organizations or companies from complying with LGBT non-discrimination laws on the basis of “religious” beliefs.

“When RFRA was adopted in the early 1990s, it was supported by a broad bipartisan coalition and was intended to provide protection for religious minorities,” Scott said during the conference call. Now, Scott said, “I am concerned that RFRA is being used as a sword, and not a shield, to advance harm to the rights of others in the pursuit of another’s religious exercise.”

HRC’s Warbelow said the new crop of RFRA laws are motivated by discrimination.

“A lot of that discrimination will occur to the LGBT community, who are often the target of such legislation,” she said. “These bills are not motivated by a true desire to protect religious minorities, but instead to allow an individual to claim their religious beliefs as a reason to poke holes in legislation designed to protect us all.”

Henderson, citing past efforts by some to use religious beliefs to justify slavery and segregation, said the latest round of religious liberty bills is not new.

“But they are dangerous,” he said. “There can be no religious exemption from basic human dignity. And to wrap this bigotry in a false flag of religious liberty is the true abomination.”

Supporters of religious liberty bills deny they are aimed at discrimination. They argue that such legislation is intended to prevent people, for example, who oppose same-sex marriage based on deep religious beliefs from being forced to provide services such as selling wedding cakes or renting reception halls for gay weddings.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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