LGBT, religious rights can coexist

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More commentary on the
religious freedom debate

Last week, Christians celebrated Easter, Jews celebrated Passover, and gays and lesbians celebrated the fact that Indiana’s legislature amended its Religious Freedom Restoration Act to ensure that the law could not be used to discriminate against them. Different strokes for different folks? Not really. One of the disturbing things about the debate sparked by the passage of the Indiana law was the extent to which complex realities were sacrificed on the altar of sound-bites.

Religious freedom is not at odds with civil liberties: it is among the first freedoms listed in our Bill of Rights. The idea that government cannot unduly burden the free exercise of religion is as old as our nation. That idea has coexisted for centuries with the notion that one person’s sincerely held religious beliefs cannot justify lawlessness. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court noted that religious freedom is even more protected now than it was at the time the Constitution was drafted by the Founding Fathers.

The LGBT community is not a threat to religious freedom. To use a biblical expression, LGBT people of faith are as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Over the past few years, and with the support of a number of religious organizations, the Supreme Court has struck down laws that degrade and demean people because of their sexual orientation. The Court is likely to do so again this summer when it decides whether same-sex marriages will become a nationwide reality. LGBT rights are more protected now than they have ever been in our country’s past.

These greater protections for religious freedom and LGBT rights are worth celebrating. This is especially true in a world where gay people are executed because of their sexual orientation (yes, there are countries in the world where this happens) and where people are martyred or imprisoned because they refuse to renounce their religion (no, this isn’t quite the same as requiring a public service provider to serve the public).

The intense debate regarding RFRA has helped provide some necessary perspective. Nationwide, it is unlawful to fire someone because of their religion. Yet far fewer than half of our states protect LGBT individuals from discrimination. Religious liberty should be protected: this is not a “special rights,” it is a fundamental freedom. But LGBT people deserve similar protections. Our country as a whole benefits when we prohibit discrimination. Equality is an American value, albeit an aspirational one.

Oklahoma’s version of RFRA died when a proposed amendment was added requiring businesses claiming religious exemptions to post a notice to that effect on their front doors and websites. For many, the idea of such signs reopened old wounds (“No Irish need apply;” “Whites only;” “Juden raus!”). Businesses have realized that many customers will not shop at a store that discriminates against classes of people, even if they do not belong to the targeted group.

Creating a false dichotomy between people of faith and LGBT individuals serves no one. Politicians who play to our fears by creating a sense of crisis where none really exists serve only themselves. Our future should be built on something sturdier than a cardboard crisis created only to get extremists to the polls during off-year elections. If there’s anything that threatens our religious freedom and our civil rights, it is voter apathy.

Austin is a professor at California Western School of Law.

Article source: http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2015/apr/11/lgbt-religious-rights-can-coexist/

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