November 22, 2017 at 6:00 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Evan Wolfson talks religious freedom, same-sex marriage abroad

Evan Wolfson, gay news, Washington Blade

Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson this month attended a conference in Costa Rica that focused on marriage rights for same-sex couples in Latin America. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — The founder of Freedom to Marry says efforts to advance anti-LGBT religious freedom measures and litigation are “nothing new.”

“It’s part of the classic pattern of civil rights advances in American history,” Evan Wolfson told the Washington Blade on Nov. 10 during an interview in the Costa Rican capital of San José. “The opponents of equality and inclusion try to block civil rights advances and when they then fail to block it, they try to subvert it and they often try to subvert it using this tactic of so-called religious freedom. This is nothing new.”

“Gay people are not the first people to experience this,” he added. “Trans people are not the first people to experience this. We still see it right now with women in an effort to erode access to reproductive rights in health care.”

Wolfson spoke with the Blade less than a month before the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in a case over whether the First Amendment allows the Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado to refuse to bake wedding cakes for same-sex couples because of their religious beliefs.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month issued broad guidance that said individuals and businesses can act based on their religious beliefs without fear of government reprisal.

Mississippi’s religious freedom law that critics contend allows anti-LGBT discrimination in the state took effect last month. A religious freedom executive order that President Trump signed in May did not contain any LGBT-specific references.

“It’s part of a struggle in which we make progress but the opposition doesn’t just melt away,” said Wolfson, who has filed an amicus brief in the Masterpiece case. “They try to subvert it and this is a very, very common tactic that they use.”

“Freedom of religion is a shield, not a sword,” he added. “Freedom of religion is intended to protect the very important rights of people to worship freely, to pray and speak as they choose and to have within their houses of worship their own songs, but it is not a sword to go into the marketplace and say I want all the benefits of participating in the public sphere but I’m not going to follow the law, I want a license to discriminate and yes I’m a business that holds our sign out and says we’re open to the public, but we’re not going to be open to the public.”

Wolfson told the Blade the American people and the courts “have rejected” this argument “time and time again.”

“Even though we’re in a kind of dysfunctional political moment where the opposition is more ferocious than in fact it is representative of the American people, even with that I am confident that we will push back on these attacks,” he said. “We won’t win every battle, but we will . . . push back on these attacks because the American people understand this is a threat to democracy, that if everybody becomes a law onto themselves and can just say I don’t want to as a defense against a civil rights law, it opens up a can of worms that inflicts real harm on real people who are denied services and turned away and subjected to indignity, but it also undermines the rule of law and the very cohesion of our democracy and for all those reasons I believe we will win.”

‘We have to learn from each other’

Wolfson spoke with the Blade at the Civil Marriage Equality Congress, which was the first of its kind conference in Latin America that focused exclusively on marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Herman Duarte of Fundación Igualitos, a Costa Rica-based group that advocates for marriage rights for same-sex couples, organized the conference alongside HduarteLex, his law firm that fights discrimination based on sexual orientation. Two Costa Rican advocacy groups — Acceder and Asociación Costarricense de Derecho International — co-hosted the gathering that drew more than 100 same-sex marriage activists from across the Western Hemisphere.

“We’re here to learn from each other,” said Wolfson.

Wolfson in 2015 submitted testimony in support of marriage rights to same-sex couples to the Colombian Constitutional Court.

He has filed a brief with the Panama Supreme Court in support of the plaintiffs in a same-sex marriage case. Wolfson is also working with two Chilean LGBT advocacy groups — the Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation and Fundación Iguales — that are working to advance the issue in the country.

“In none of these countries . . . am I driving it all,” he told the Blade. “I’m advising and sharing and trying to help and encourage and give people the experience and elements that they can adopt.”

Panama is among the countries in Latin America in which activists are seeking marriage rights for same-sex couples. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Wolfson in 2016 met with advocates in Cuba who are promoting marriage rights for same-sex couples in the country. He has also met with activists, business leaders and government officials in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Japan, South Africa and other countries since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 issued its landmark ruling in the Obergefell case.

Wolfson noted 1.1 billion people around the world live in jurisdictions in which same-sex couples can legally marry. He spoke with the Blade less than two weeks before Australian officials announced the majority of voters who took part in a non-binding plebiscite on whether gays and lesbians should be able to tie the knot said “yes.”

“It refutes the opposition’s claims that bad things will happen,” said Wolfson, referring to the increasing number of jurisdictions that allow same-sex marriage. “That’s an important part of the case we have to be making in the court of public opinion as well in the court of law in these countries here. But also it provides this mountain of experience and evidence that can be drawn on in the discussions, whether with the public or with decision makers. This is not a new question.”

“We’re not in the United States in 1972. We’re in Costa Rica in 2017,” he added, noting 70 percent of Latin America’s total population live in jurisdictions that have extended marriage rights to same-sex couples. “So why shouldn’t the people of Costa Rica, or Peru, or Panama or go down the list have what all their brothers and sisters across the continent — let alone around the world — have.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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