There is no zero-sum competition between LGBT rights and religious freedom

Emma Green published another feature in the Atlantic this morning, titled “Can States Protect LGBT Rights Without Compromising Religious Freedom?” which doubles down on her previous suggestions that LGBT rights and religious freedom are deadlocked in a zero-sum competition, with the advance of one necessarily meaning the retreat of the other.

Specifically, she outlines how the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision granting same-sex couples marriage rights has opened new doors for anti-LGBT discrimination in businesses and workplaces — doors that must be closed with new laws that protect LGBT people from discrimination in housing, hiring and public accommodation. However, she warns, without compromises for religious non-profits and business owners, these new anti-discrimination measures could tread on the rights of some Americans — particularly religious non-profits such as schools and churches — to freely practice their faith.

Searching for middle ground, Green writes favorably of compromise legislation like the anti-discrimination law recently passed in Utah, which prohibits anti-LGBT discrimination by for-profit employers but exempts religious non-profits like schools, hospitals and churches — even if they receive public funds. But what Green calls “compromise,” LGBT advocates would simply call “incomplete.” The Utah bill provides no protection for LGBT consumers in places of public accommodation — so you can still set up a straights-only wedding planning business — and it still allows employees at non-profits that receive public grants to be fired based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. As long as that’s the case, Utahan citizens will be denied their rights, and that’s unacceptable.

Gay marriage via Shutterstock

Gay marriage via Shutterstock

Surprising as this may be for Green, though, full equality for LGBT people can be achieved without a corresponding loss of religious freedom for religious conservatives who are opposed to full equality for LGBT people. It just requires us to drop the notion that the religious community — which in this context is almost entirely limited to conservative Christians — deserves extra rights in the public sphere.

That is, after all, the very definition of religious freedom in a secular liberal democracy such as the United States: You get to practice your faith in private, but you don’t get to impose it on anyone else. You don’t, for instance, get to say that you won’t make a pizza for a black person but you will make one for a white person. Nor do you get to say that you’ll sell a suit to a man but not to a woman. And you certainly can’t make it store policy to ask your customers if they’re Muslim before deciding whether to give them a loan at a bank.

You could claim a sincerely-held religious belief for all of these actions, but no one would take you seriously if you did. That’s because we decided that it isn’t alright to discriminate on the basis of race, gender or religion in hiring, housing or places of public accommodation decades ago. And what few exemptions were carved out for religious beliefs at the time were established on astonishingly weak grounds. In other words, Christian conservatives are demanding the rights to discriminate against LGBT people that we’ve already decided they don’t or shouldn’t have against any other demographic. Christian conservatives have a term for that, and that term is “special rights.”

There’s a reason you don’t see Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or other religious groups fighting for the right to discriminate in accordance with their religious beliefs: as minority groups, they have to struggle hard enough for rights; they don’t get to reach for privilege. For every religious group in the United States except conservative Christians, religious freedom means the freedom to practice one’s religion in the privacy of your own home or religious organization, not the right to impose your religious beliefs on your employees or customers who don’t share them.

So no, full equality for LGBT people isn’t in a zero-sum competition with religious freedom. It is, however, in a zero-sum competition with Christian privilege. And I don’t think it’s too much to ask to demand full victory on that front.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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