Churches in the ‘civil rights’ crosshairs
Religious Liberty | LGBT activists push to revoke religious exemptions to sexual orientation and gender identity laws
by Bonnie Pritchett
Posted 9/13/16, 11:01 am
Massachusetts has become the latest state to approve protected class status for transgender persons, and churches should not expect any exemption from the law that goes into effect Oct. 1.
According to the Gender Identity Guidance report by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, churches be can considered places of public accommodation and subjected to fines and penalties for not accommodating transgender persons in accordance with their gender identity.
The push to revoke religious liberty protections for churches and faith-based organizations that object to the new definitions of sexuality and gender extends to the federal government, which recently issued its own report about ways to enforce the new cultural order.
In the report, ironically titled Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties, U.S. Civil Rights Commission chairman Martin Castro made it clear no such coexistence could happen as long as Christians continue to use the terms religious liberty and religious freedom as “code words” for a host of hateful and discriminatory actions including “Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.”
The report, issued Sept. 8, examined the balance struck by courts at all levels “in adjudicating claims for religious exemptions from otherwise applicable nondiscrimination law.” In March 2013, the commission convened a panel of 11 legal scholars to examine the collision course of religious liberties outlined in the Constitution with the growing number of pro-LGBT municipal and state nondiscrimination laws.
“Today, as in the past, religion is being used as both a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality,” Castro wrote in his summation of the commission’s report. “In our nation’s past, religion has been used to justify slavery and later, Jim Crow laws. We now see ‘religious liberty’ arguments sneaking their way back into our political and constitutional discourse (just like the concept of ‘state rights’) in an effort to undermine the rights of some Americans.”
The recently amended Massachusetts nondiscrimination law would require churches to allow biological males or biological females to use the restroom and changing facilities that comport to their gender identity during any “secular event.” Violators could be fined up to $2,500 and face up to one year in prison—or both.
But opponents object to describing churches as places of public accommodation.
“They are places of public worship, and this distinction is critical to understand and protect the constitutional rights of churches to speak and use their buildings only in ways that are consistent with their faith,” Erik Stanley, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, told me. “The public is not invited to a church to act as they please.”
Stanley said the fundamental nature of a church does not change when it opens its doors for events not associated with worship. To assume it does is to misunderstand the role of religion under the First Amendment—and that of church in society.
“Churches invite the public as a means of outreach and to evangelize,” he said. “Those outreach efforts do not translate them into places the government can regulate and thereby force churches to use their facilities or speak in ways that violate their faith.”
Government demands for compliance with laws antithetical to a faith-based ministry’s tenets threaten that organization’s ability to serve the community, according to Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Whelan, one of the 11 panelists invited to address the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, defended religious exemptions from nondiscrimination laws.
In his statement to the commission, Whelan criticized President Barack Obama’s hostility to religious liberty and “moral propositions associated with traditional religious beliefs.”
The commission’s report recommends narrowly crafting any religious exemptions to civil liberties. It also calls for uniform state and federal legislation clarifying that “the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) creates First Amendment Free Exercise Clause rights only for individuals and religious institutions and only to the extent that they do not unduly burden civil liberties and civil rights protections against status-based discrimination.”
States without RFRA statutes can only create exemptions deemed allowable by pre-RFRA standards “which protect religious beliefs rather than conduct.” States with RFRA laws should amend them so as not to “unduly burden civil liberties and civil rights protections against status-based discrimination.”
Castro’s intent is clear.
“This generation of Americans must stand up and speak out to ensure that religion never again be twisted to deny others the full promise of America,” he wrote.
Stanley said the commission’s report does not have the weight of law but “those who want to deny the free exercise of religion” can use it to their advantage.
Whelan warned the view of churches’ role in society has changed.
“Religious institutions and believers are deemed to have value, and to be tolerated, only insofar as they serve the interests of the state and conform themselves to its norms,” he wrote. “In the progressive dystopia, in the name of diversity everyone must be the same.”
Bonnie is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas School of Journalism. Bonnie resides with her family in League City, Texas.