Over the past decade, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people have made significant legal and political progress, including the freedom to marry in some countries. Despite this progress, federal law does not expressly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in fields like employment, housing, and access to services, and fewer than half of the states offer explicit protections for LGBT people at the state level. Without these protections, LGBT people across the United States lack clear recourse and redress when they are fired, evicted, or refused service because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Against this backdrop of legal vulnerability, lawmakers who oppose marriage for same-sex couples and recent moves to advance transgender equality have led an anti-LGBT charge, pushing for, and often succeeding in getting, new laws that carve out religious exemptions for individuals who claim that compliance with particular laws interferes with their religious or moral beliefs.
The freedom of religion, as well as nondiscrimination, is a significant rights issue, and it is important that governments do not unnecessarily burden the exercise of religious conscience. This is especially important to minority religious groups, whose practices are all too easily trampled on by laws and policies enacted by majorities. But when exemptions to laws to accommodate religious beliefs or practices impinge on the rights of others or core societal values like nondiscrimination, lawmakers should proceed with caution.
Proponents of these laws argue that they properly balance religious freedom with the rights of LGBT individuals. In fact, with few exceptions, the laws as drafted create blanket exemptions for religious believers to discriminate with no consideration of or even mechanism for consideration of the harms and burdens on others. Because of their narrow focus on the objector, the laws provide little protection for the rights, well-being, or dignity of those who are turned away.
Statements made by legislative supporters of the laws, and in some cases the content of the laws themselves, moreover, make clear that they aim to push back against recent gains toward LGBT equality and to dilute the rights of LGBT people to secure protection from invidious discrimination.
They send a signal that the state governments enacting them accept and even embrace the dangerous and harmful notion that discrimination against LGBT people is a legitimate demand of both conscience and religion. Particularly in states that lack any underlying laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people, many of the laws are not “exemptions” so much as a license to discriminate.