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Op-ed: Guess What — We're the Oppressors

Op-ed: Guess What — We're the Oppressors


How the fight for civil liberties was flipped on its head by the religious right.

Did you know that the LGBT community is oppressing Christians?

I know, I know, you may think that the sentence should be the other way around, given 2,000 years of institutionalized homophobia, burning "faggots" (queer men) at the feet of "witches" (queer women), and preaching that love is an abomination.

But according to a well-coordinated, well-funded campaign, actually the gays are oppressing conservative Christians, you see, because we're not letting them discriminate against us. And according to a comprehensive new study published last week by Political Research Associates and prepared by this writer, the campaign is working. Its rhetoric has been adopted not just by the usual fundamentalist loons but by mainstream politicians and academics. It has successfully obtained religious exemptions to nondiscrimination and same-sex marriage laws. And it has turned the cherished value of religious liberty from a shield into a sword.

Here's the basic logic, using the facts of an actual case. Suppose I'm a wedding photographer in Albuquerque who happens to be a Bible-believing fundamentalist Christian. Because of said Bible beliefs, I oppose same-sex marriage, and despite the fact that I'm operating a public business, I refuse to take a photograph of John and Jack when they come into my studio. After all, I point out, there's another photographer right down the street. What's the harm?

And by the way, Mrs. Parks, there are plenty of other seats on the bus.

Well, along comes New Mexico's antidiscrimination law, and it says that I can't discriminate against gays in that way. So I have to pay a fine. Fortunately, the far-right "Alliance Defending Freedom" (like "religious liberty" itself, the players in this game have Orwellian names) and the archconservative-Catholic-supported Becket Fund come along and take my case, arguing that my religious liberty is restricted when I have to obey the law.

Now, there's a certain truth to that. My religious liberty is restricted when I can't discriminate against others. But remember that saying, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's?" It's in Matthew 22:21. Jesus said it. And it stands for the principle that the secular law applies to everyone who participates in the open marketplac, and that obeying said law is part of what it means to live in a diverse society.

The "religious liberty" campaign aims to change all that. According to its dogma, if the owner of a business is a conservative Christian, that business shouldn't have to provide insurance coverage that one day might be used for contraception. According to its values, when a bully taunts a gay kid by wearing a T-shirt calling homosexuality an abomination, the real victim is not the gay kid, but the bully who's told he can't wear the shirt to public school.

In some ways this argument is not new. It was used back in the 1970s to defend racial segregation. In fact, the birth of the contemporary "Christian right" was not, as is sometimes supposed, the sexual revolution or Roe v. Wade, but the case of Bob Jones University, an evangelical college that had racist admission and housing policies. The IRS took the university's tax exemption away, citing public policy, and a network of evangelicals fought back on the grounds, you guessed it, of "religious liberty."

Today, the same argument is being applied to women's rights and LGBT equality. Having basically lost the moral argument on issues like same-sex marriage (as the far right had around segregation in the '70s), now the right is fighting the same battles under the banner of religious liberty.

But what is new is how well it's working. At the vice-presidential debate last fall, Rep. Paul Ryan accused the Obama administration of "assaulting the religious liberties of Catholic charities, Catholic churches, Catholic hospitals" simply by requiring these huge, multimillion-dollar businesses that receive the majority of their funding from the government not to discriminate against gays and make women's health care decisions for them. (Churches, incidentally, are already exempt from all of these laws.) And just last month, Stanford University announced a new Religious Liberty Clinic funded by the Becket Fund, which itself is funded by the Knights of Columbus and a handful of ultraconservative donors.

Can you imagine Stanford setting up a "Right to Life Center" or "Family Values Center"? Hardly -- which goes to show how this insidious rhetoric has successfully co-opted mainstream academics and politicians.

What should we in the LGBT community be doing about this covert assault on our civil rights?

First, we need to recognize it as such. "Religious liberty" has become a code word, like "family values." It used to be a liberal value, because it protected minority religious expression from restriction by others. But now it's been turned on its head, from liberal to ultraconservative, and from a shield against discrimination into a sword used to discriminate. This is not the result of some grassroots campaign, but of a sophisticated conservative Catholic-conservative evangelical alliance that was forged in the pro-life movement.

Second, we need to nip it in the bud. Sure, a single wedding photographer somewhere has an appealing story to some. But this is a slippery slope toward creating a second class of citizenship. Any hotel, restaurant, department store, or bank could simply hang out a sign saying "No Gays Allowed." My marriage in the state of New York would be valid only if someone else wants it to be. This is not hyperbole. The Becket Fund has filed 37 lawsuits challenging Obamacare that explicitly seek to extend "religious exemptions" not just to churches, not just to church-affiliated businesses, but to private corporations as well.

And it's not just a matter of expressing an opinion. Chick-fil-A's owners have a right to say what they want about same-sex marriage, and we have a right to boycott them. But we're talking about more than speech here. We're talking about bosses telling employees what health care they can access and about legitimizing discrimination in concrete ways that hurt real people in the name of a distorted form of "religious liberty."

Finally, LGBT and progressive communities need to take back these words. Statistically speaking, most Christians in America do not seek to impose a fundamentalist reading of Scripture on other people; the Becket Fund, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the rest of the "religious liberty" crowd do not speak even for most believers. Let alone the Constitution. "Religious liberty" is a sacred American value -- but only alongside "live and let live."

JAY MICHAELSON, Ph.D., a religious liberty fellow at Political Research Associates, is the author of the report Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights.

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Jay Michaelson