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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    no-just follow the law-if you don’t like blacks or gays or women because of your god, you are allowed to think that and say that, but you do not get to impose that on other sin business dealings. Sorry-that’s not our country


    Justin, im afraid we aren’t doing that anymore. Just as you shove your straightness (allegedly) in our faces with your wedding ring, pictures at work, etc, so too we gays will talk about our relationships when we want and how we want-don’t like it? stay in the trailer


    unfortunately you must leave it at home or in church if you interact business wise in the public sphere-thems the rules and we will enforce them


    Justin, its just another faith-like the other thousands of belief systems

  • Melo11

    Nice article!

  • Shar_M

    I trust you’ll demonstrate the same courtesy. Don’t mention that you’re heterosexual. Put away the pictures of the wife and kids – people might guess your sexuality from it. Don’t mention the wife/girlfriend. Don’t be seen in public wearing a wedding ring.

  • Moderator3

    This is a non-bigot site. Bye.

  • justin davis

    Correction for the author: Christians don’t practice faith, its who we are.

  • justin davis

    Christians are Christians 24/7. Not just in their homes.

  • justin davis

    Yes, That’s what the author of this article wants Christians to do.

  • Mike_in_the_Tundra

    Good idea. I’ll just tell my husband and children to hide in the house.

    In all honesty, the children are grown. I’ll just tell them they can’t visit. I will only be able to see the grandchildren when I visit them. My husband won’t be able to visit them, because he’s hiding in the house.

  • justin davis

    How about gays just leave there sexuality at the front door. Don’t let people know your gay maybe and you shouldn’t have any problems.

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  • There’s the religious freedom which affects only you and your own free exercise of your faith. Back in 1990, Justice Scalia penned the majority decision in the Employment Division v. Smith case in which he claimed the government’s interest in prohibiting the use of peyote in all cases overrode the right of Native American tribes to use it in their ceremonies. (Many, including myself, felt this was a terrible decision and yet another example showing that any non-Christian faith could expect lesser rights than Christians. Why? Because the government’s interest in preventing underage drinking clearly did not ban minors from accepting Communion wine.)

    And then there’s this new right the Christian conservatives are demanding, which is not just a right to practice their faith, but the right to invoke their faith to abridge the secular civil rights of others. Truly, what is there difference, if there is any, between denying lodging to a gay couple because they’re gay and doing the same thing to another family because they are Jewish or Muslim or atheists? Or African American?

    Until the bigots began demanding their special privileges to discriminate, this has always been the bright line: Your right to practice your faith is subject both to reasonable accommodations and they end where someone else’s rights begin. As you’ve noted, Jon, the Christian conservatives aren’t just demanding the right to exercise their faith, they’re trying to define their religious liberty precisely as the right to discriminate against LGBT people.

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