When Religion Becomes an Excuse to Discriminate

Religion Discriminates

This week the Movement Advancement Project launched an ad campaign with a video that shows a widow being denied a funeral service for her deceased wife. I wish this were a purely hypothetical example of the dangers of so-called religious exemption laws and policies, but it was all too real for Jack Zawadski.

Jack and his late husband, Bob, were partners for over half a century. As Bob’s health deteriorated, Jack’s nephew prearranged funeral services to minimize the stress on Jack. But when the hour of Jack’s heart-wrenching loss arrived, the funeral home refused to take Bob’s body. Upon learning that Bob and Jack were married, objecting funeral home staff told Bob’s nursing home that it went against her beliefs as a Christian.

In another example of devastating discrimination, a faith-based child welfare agency denied a lesbian couple in Texas the opportunity to foster a refugee child, potentially depriving a child of a loving home. Fatma Marouf and Bryn Esplin are an interfaith couple who both teach at Texas A&M University, where Fatma serves as director of the university’s immigration rights clinic. A federally funded refugee program affiliated with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops invited Fatma to visit and learn about the program’s work with unaccompanied refugee children. Seeing these children in urgent need led the couple to decide to foster one themselves. But early in the application process, to their shock and dismay, they were told they were ineligible because their family structure does not “mirror the Holy Family.”

Some might think Fatma and Bryn’s experience was a fluke. But the sad reality is that anti-LGBT discrimination happens all the time.

Despite marriage equality and other advances in LGBT civil rights, calls for help to Lambda Legal show this discrimination remains widespread. Lambda Legal and Family Equality Council recently reviewed more than 1,000 reports of mistreatment in public accommodations alone, and the results are troubling.

LGBT people in southern states and northern ones, in big cities and small towns, shared stories of humiliation, trauma, and abuse. They described refusals of service in bakeries and hotel lobbies, in doctors’ offices and public transportation. Sometimes the refusals caused disruption and increased costs; sometimes they happened in critical moments when no other options were available.

Often the rejection happened without warning — in an ordinary instant of an average day — blindsiding its targets, who were at a post office, an accountant’s office, or a barber shop. For others, vicious harassment forced them to seek help from law enforcement or to seek new housing. No matter who the target is and no matter the specifics of the refusal, the emotional impact is real and often searing: LGBT people learn to live defensively, always on guard against another humiliating, ostracizing incident.

After experiencing such discrimination, most people who have been targeted will suffer both immediate and lasting harms. As Jack was mourning the loss of his beloved partner of many decades, as Fatma and Bryn were planning their future family together, they were abruptly and completely rejected as equals by people operating a business or social services agency.

As a society, we have learned repeatedly that no one should be turned away from public services just because of who they are. And we have learned that public rejections — from humiliating harassment to outright service denials — inflict lasting damage both to those treated as “less than” and to our fractured society.

It’s bad enough that anti-LGBT discrimination still happens all the time. But with the push for religious exemption laws, policies, and court cases, it threatens to get worse. As Jack’s, Bryn’s, and Fatma’s stories illustrate, our cherished right of religious liberty is being turned into a tool for discrimination. Opponents of equality for LGBT people, women, and vulnerable others are seeking to exempt themselves from rules intended to ensure safety and fairness for everyone. We have seen too much of this before.

Some defenders of religious exemptions point to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case currently before the Supreme Court, arguing that no real harm is being done because it’s “just a cake.” But the commercial bakery that casts itself as a victim because it’s expected to serve all customers equally shows the anti-LGBT prejudice still poisoning our society. Whether cake or lodging or medical care, making any targeted group into pariahs is traumatizing, and deadly serious business.

Opponents of LGBT equality have been preparing for years to deploy religion claims to thwart our progress toward full equality. But in the past year, they have found a powerful new accomplice in the Trump administration. Last month, with the creation of the new Conscience and Religious Freedom unit in the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights, the federal government switched focus from protecting patients to prioritizing the “religious or moral” objections of health care workers over medical standards and patients’ needs. We’ve entered an alarming era that’s not just topsy-turvy but dangerous.

The thousands of reports of refusals and harm that LGBT people already have shared with us are real and urgent warnings that we must not allow this to become a new normal.

JENNIFER C. PIZER is the director of law and policy at Lambda Legal.

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