Consider the following situation: Because of her religious beliefs against same-sex marriage, a New Mexico photographer refuses to shoot a lesbian couple’s wedding. The photographer claims taking the pictures would infringe on her religious liberty. The couple, on the other hand, faces discrimination based on sexual orientation. Who is in the right?
Given New Mexico’s anti-discrimination law, the couple clearly is. Yet conservative Christian groups often invert the narrative by framing religious people as the true victims of discrimination. A new report by PRA Religious Liberty Fellow Dr. Jay Michaelson, Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights, examines the growth of recent movements against same-sex marriage and reproductive rights on the basis of “religious liberty.”
Being a (conservative) Christian does not permit the photographer to ignore state anti-discrimination laws, much in the same way she cannot ignore environmental and labor laws. She, as an individual, may value her beliefs over the civil rights of others, but her business does not have that luxury. Furthermore, the court found that the simple act of taking photos of a same-sex wedding, as a professional photographer, did not truly “infringe upon freedom of speech or compel unwanted expression.”
The report analyzes this case and others in which the Christian Right has painted itself as the victim of women and LGBTQ individuals asserting their rights. Invariably, in these arguments, “religious freedom” includes the freedom to discriminate.
Michaelson points out that the Right’s religious liberty rhetoric is entrenched in a history of marginalization: “Then as now, the Christian Right turned antidiscrimination arguments on their heads,” he writes. “Instead of African Americans being discriminated against by segregated Christian universities, the universities were being discriminated against by not being allowed to exclude them.”
At least nine state legislatures currently hold “religious liberty caucuses” to redefine what America means by religious liberty and carve out wider and wider arenas that would not be protected under discrimination law. An increasingly popular right-wing cause, religious liberty was even one of Mitt Romney’s rallying points in the 2012 presidential debate.
Freedom of religion is ultimately not under attack in the United States. Federal courts already give wide scope to religions to discriminate when hiring clergy or in their religious practices. Legalizing same-sex marriage in civil law would require not one Christian minister to marry LGBTQ couples. These facts, however, do not stop right-wing lobbyists from suggesting that new laws might do exactly that to stir up fear and outrage.
Read the report PDF here.