Throughout history, people have used religion to justify a myriad of injustices. In the United States, for example, some Christians used their faith to defend slavery and segregation, citing scriptural references as moral justification for the dehumanization and genocide of Black and indigenous people until, ultimately, the government intervened. Earlier today at the U.S. Supreme Court, the Christian Right once again attempted to justify injustice, asserting that religious freedom grants them the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people. But before gay wedding cakes were ever up for debate, we saw the Christian Right manipulate religious freedom to enable racial discrimination, too.
In 1970, Bob Jones University (BJU), a fundamentalist Christian school in Greenville, South Carolina, came into conflict with the IRS over issues of racial discrimination (at the time, the school did not admit Black students). School officials argued that since they didn’t accept federal funding, they were free to operate according to their own will, proclaiming that their discriminatory policies were a matter of religious freedom. However, the Civil Rights Act of 1969 disrupted the legality of racial discrimination, and in 1976, the IRS rescinded BJU’s tax exempt status, which they only regained in February 2017 by reorganizing under the existing 501(c)3 status of Bob Jones Elementary. In its decision, the IRS affirmed that discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity is illegal, and therefore BJU was not justified in denying admission to Black students.
In an interview with religious historian Randall Balmer, longtime BJU administrator Elmer L. Rumminger explained that the IRS actions against his school “alerted the Christian school community about what could happen with government interference” in the affairs of evangelical institutions. “That was really the major issue that got us all involved.”
The Moral Majority was founded a few years later, formally establishing the Christian Right’s most powerful political coalition of the time. Paul Weyrich, the late conservative Christian political activist and co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, was one of the architects of the movement. In the mid-1970s he wrote, “The new political philosophy must be defined by us [conservatives] in moral terms, packaged in non-religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition… When political power is achieved, the moral majority will have the opportunity to re-create this great nation.”
Weyrich could be thought of as the original “make America great again” evangelist — a man who was committed to an idealized notion of what America once was and dedicated his entire life to reinstating the dominance of a white, middle class, Christian patriarchy. The contemporaries of the now-defunct Moral Majority continue to weaponize religious freedom to advance the Right’s overarching goals of maintaining and advancing cultural, economic, and political dominance, at the expense of those who have been historically marginalized, including women, LGBTQ people, poor people, and non-Christians.
The Civil Rights Act prevented the Right from successfully manipulating religious freedom into a tool of racial oppression in the 1970s, but without federal protections1 against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, LGBTQ people remain especially vulnerable, and the Right is well positioned to exploit that vulnerability to its fullest extent.
As PRA research analyst Frederick Clarkson has carefully documented, religious freedom was initially designed as an important strategy for protecting religious minorities and nonreligious people, shielding them from the dominant culture’s religious imposition, and preserving the separation of church and State. Again, the Christian Right is manipulating this progressive value to justify discrimination against those who are not aligned with their particular ideological views. Increasingly, religious freedom is being used to deny the right of LGBTQ people and women to have agency over their own lives and bodies and to live according to their own beliefs and values.
The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling in 2014 enabled the large, family-owned chain of craft stores the right to claim a religious exemption from providing employees with healthcare insurance that covered four kinds of contraceptives, based on the company owners’ belief (medical science notwithstanding) that they are abortifacients. This was the first time a private business was granted religious standing under the First Amendment, which dangerously expanded the notion of corporate personhood, granting for-profit entities legal justification for religion-based discrimination.
Today, this corruption of religious freedom is being tested again as the Supreme Court hears the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Jack Phillips, a professional baker and the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Denver, Colorado, refused to make a wedding cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a gay couple who sought out his services in 2012. Phillips’ refusal violated Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits businesses open to the public from discriminating against customers on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. According to Phillips (who is represented by the right-wing Christian legal group, Alliance Defending Freedom), making the cake would have forced him to “use my creativity, my talents and my art for an event — a significant religious event — that violates my religious faith.”
Unfortunately, Jack Phillips, like many fundamentalist Christians, sees LGBTQ people not simply as people who are LGBTQ but as people who believe that they’re LGBTQ. Because he makes a distinction between the sexual orientation of Charlie Craig and David Mullins and their humanity, he feels justified in refusing to serve them. From his perspective, he’s not discriminating against a gay couple — he’s rejecting the notion that Charlie and David’s queerness is an inherent part of who they are.
This is dangerous, and (in Colorado) it’s illegal. A person’s religious faith does not give them the right to decide whether or not another person’s identity is real, and it certainly doesn’t give them the right to discriminate.
The Moral Majority disbanded in 1979, but the strength and influence of the Christian Right has continued to steadily expand, thanks to the leadership of organizations like Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, Alliance Defending Freedom, the Heritage Foundation, and others. Over the last 30 years, these groups have built inroads at all levels of governance, from local school boards to the White House, and they ultimately endeavor to establish and enforce a brand of Christian nationalism that fundamentally disregards the rights and liberties of LGBTQ people, women, and non-Christians (as well as Christians who interpret and live out their faith differently than those who are fundamentalists).
Fortunately, they haven’t yet succeeded. And so those who are called by their faith and moral convictions to fight for justice and equality for all people must remember that religious freedom is their right, too, and they must reassert and reclaim its progressive foundation.
1 Under the Obama administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission adopted the position that LGBTQ discrimination was covered under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. The Trump administration reversed this decision in July 2017.