By Bob Allen
Americans United for Separation of State unveiled a new initiative July 7 to counter attempts by the Religious Right to conflate religious liberty with the right to discriminate against LGBT Americans.
The new Protect Thy Neighbor initiative includes lobbying, litigation and education to combat the growing idea that “religious freedom” gives people a right to deny gay people the right to marry, deny women access to reproductive care and use tax dollars to discriminate.
“Some people want to convert the crucial principle of religious freedom into a license to discriminate against others and deny Americans essential services,” AU Executive Director Barry Lynn said in a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington. “That’s a corruption of a noble concept, and we don’t intend to stand for it.”
The first Protect Thy Neighbor project, announced July 8, is for AU’s legal department to send letters to every attorney general in the country and every county clerk in the states of Texas and South Dakota reminding them of their legal obligation to provide wedding licenses and other services to couples of the same sex.
Texas and South Dakota are singled out because in those states the attorney general has advised county clerks they may have a right to refuse services that violate their religious beliefs.
Legislative work will address recent attempts at the state level to pass “religious freedom” laws that critics say could be used as a license to discriminate.
An frequently-asked-questions page says the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed by Congress in 1993 has been used in ways that original proponents didn’t imagine, such as Hobby Lobby using a religious-liberty defense to deny workers insurance coverage for birth control.
Some of the state RFRA laws go further than the federal law that prohibits the government from unnecessarily burdening religious exercise by extending the right to private citizens to refuse business services to certain individuals on religious grounds.
“At first, state supporters had the same good intentions as the original supporters of the federal RFRA,” said an answer to one FAQ. “But today, supporters of state RFRAs make it clear that they intend to authorize discrimination against LGBT Americans and denial of reproductive health care to women.”
A case in point, AU said, is the controversial RFRA that recently passed in Indiana. “The law was backed by anti-gay groups and its supporters described it as a way to ensure that businesses could discriminate against same-sex couples,” according to the website.
Lynn said the name Protect Thy Neighbor is designed to send a message to those who would use religion as a tool to harm others or diminish their rights.
“The idea of treating your neighbor with love and respect runs through every major religion and secular philosophy,” said Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. “But too often, the message of the Religious Right and its theological and political allies is the opposite: They look for ways to take away the rights of their fellow citizens.”
Lynn described Protect Thy Neighbor as “a direct challenge to the narrow and exclusionary view of those who would assail the rights of others under the guise of ‘religious freedom.’”