On Tuesday, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a sweeping anti-LGBT proposals into law — and under the guise of honoring religious freedom. Known as “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act," the Mississippi law came just weeks after North Carolina passed a law that struck down all existing LGBT nondiscrimination statutes across the state and required people to use the public bathrooms that correspond with the gender as described by their birth certificate. (A South Carolina state senator has since introduced a similar bill.)
While North Carolina's law does not specifically invoke religious freedom as a rationale for its absurd bathroom policing, anti-LGBT bills ostensibly designed to protect religious freedom are popping up throughout the country. A similar "religious liberty" bill recently failed in Georgia after being criticized by Gov. Nathan Deal because it hurt the state's reputation for being filled with “warm, friendly and loving people” — though his veto appears to have also been fueled by corporate pressure from Disney, Apple, Time Warner, and even the NFL. Arkansas’s governor signed a modified version of a similar religious freedom bill, though it had been revised after facing pressure from businesses — including Wal-Mart, his state's top employer — who "called the original bill discriminatory and said it would hurt Arkansas' image," reported USA Today.
Last year, Indiana’s governor, Mike Pence, signed a "religious freedom" law like Mississippi’s. Pence was roundly criticized, and Indiana's "religious freedom" law was subsequently amended to "remove fears that it would allow businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians," according to the Indy Star.
Since 1993, when the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was signed into law by then President Bill Clinton, 21 states have enacted state RFRAs. The federal RFRA was passed in response to the firing of two Oregon men for ingesting peyote as part of a Native American religious ritual. They were subsequently denied unemployment benefits by the state. When the Supreme Court ruled against the men in the 1990 Oregon v. Smith, Congress "sought to replace the Smith rule with a complex balancing test that provided an exception for religious considerations," as Scott Lemieux explained at TheWeek.com. Hence, Congress and Clinton pushed the RFRA as a means of protecting religious people from being fired or denied benefits for participating in religious rituals.
However, state RFRAs passed or proposed in recent years are widely seen as an attempt by anti-LGBT activists to turn back the clock by introducing legislation designed to protect bigoted individuals — and, more troublingly, corporations — from being sued for discrimination. As Rose Saxe, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT and HIV Project tells Bustle, “We have seen an increase in these types of laws … largely in response to gains in equality for LGBT people.”
RFRA supporters claim these laws are designed to protect people’s religious freedom. But Mississippi’s law is very specific about which beliefs are protected: “The sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions protected by this act are the belief or conviction that: (a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman; (b) Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and (c) Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual's immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.”
The irony is that this law actually violates the religious convictions of many, many Americans.
One such person is Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, author of Nurture The Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting, who tells Bustle in an email that she believes “the most important commandment in the Torah [the Jewish bible] is the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.” Ruttenberg says laws like Mississippi’s clash with her beliefs:
My sincerely-held religious beliefs involve protecting the health (physical and mental) and safety of all people, most especially those who might be vulnerable as a result of minority or marginalized status ... Discrimination is a desecration of the divine.
Leah Bojnowski is an attorney and ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). “Homosexuality is not incompatible with Christian faith at all,” she tells Bustle. “I don’t consider it a sin or a negative, but part of the diversity of God’s creation.” The recent spate of religious freedom laws offends her on three levels. “As a Christian — I don’t need or want ‘protection’ from gay people; as a lawyer — how can you ever say that’s separation of Church and State?" and, thirdly, "as a person of color, whose mixed-race son is an affront to certain other people’s religious beliefs.”
I don’t see how passage of these laws furthers faith in our country or brings more people to God, to Church, or to participate in worship. How do they help anyone except to make certain people … feel more comfortable? To me, that’s not the point of Christianity.
Matt Weir, an attorney and practicing Episcopalian from West Orange, New Jersey, echoes Bojnowski’s comments. "I think these laws are primarily aimed at serving people who purport to be Christian but who have not fully come to an understanding of that shared spirit we have," he tells Bustle. "Insofar as my belief is based on love for others, compassion for others and, importantly, recognition that humanity is diverse … [these laws] are antithetical to my faith."
Laws like Mississippi’s also erase those who identify as both sincerely religious and LGBT. Brandiilyne Mangum-Dear is a pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. She was born and raised in Mississippi and is a lesbian. “As a faith leader I’m mortified [by Mississippi’s law],” she tells Bustle. “I’m angry … people are leaving [the church] in droves. Our goal as faith leaders is to bring people into the faith and build relationships. You cannot build relationships with people if you judge them and criticize them and turn them away.”
Mangum-Dear is especially hurt that her state is once again passing laws “that try to make me a second-class citizen and take my rights away.” When she came out as a lesbian, she tells me, she lost her ministry in Laurel, Mississippi. “I almost turned away from God,” she says. “MCC saved me … I didn’t even know there were churches like this, that allowed you to be religious and gay.”
Peter Montgomery, a Unitarian Universalist and senior fellow at People For the American Way, became a Unitarian the same year he came out as gay. “It has been important to me to be part of a religious tradition and community that affirms LGBT people,” he tells Bustle in an email.
Montgomery adds that he is “a lifelong advocate for religious freedom … I absolutely defend the rights of those with religious beliefs that differ from mine to teach, preach, broadcast, and advocate for those beliefs.” However, he adds, defending religious freedom is not the same as “allowing people and organizations to use their religious beliefs to justify actions that harm others, or as a blanket excuse for violating other core constitutional principles like equal treatment under the law.”