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Indiana clergy speaking out against the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act. (Photo: Freedom Indiana/Facebook)

Forces of Equality Intensify Fight Against 'Persecution in Name of Religion'

'Politicians across the nation have a critical choice to make: do the right thing by rejecting Indiana-style discrimination laws,' says national LGBTQ activist

Deirdre Fulton

The fallout over various state-level 'religious freedom' laws, which critics say authorize discrimination against LGBTQ people, continued into Friday, with civil rights advocates calling on politicians to reject similar measures around the country.

On Thursday, the governors of Indiana and Arkansas both signed bills aimed at clarifying their states' controversial 'religious freedom' laws. Indiana's revised law explicitly bars businesses from denying services to individuals on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In Arkansas, the Religious Freedom Reformation Act was amended to mirror the federal version of the law. 

But the 'fixes' signed Thursday did little to placate the activists, businesspeople, and lawmakers who said such laws should never be passed in the first place.

Calling for a statewide nondiscrimination law, Freedom Indiana's Katie Blair acknowledged that the changes "represent an important step forward" but still fall short "in many ways."

"Statewide nondiscrimination protections for LGBT Hoosiers still do not exist," she noted, "meaning discrimination is still legal in most of the state."

Which is why the National LGBTQ Task Force on Thursday launched the nationwide 'Nix It Now' campaign, urging politicians to reject similar discrimination laws being floated in states including Georgia, Maine, North Carolina, and Texas.

A Time magazine map shows that 'religious freedom' bills already exist in 19 states and are pending in at least six others.

"Politicians across the nation have a critical choice to make: do the right thing by rejecting Indiana-style discrimination laws or do the wrong thing by supporting these laws and thereby transforming their states into no-go areas for LGBTQ people and our allies," said Russell Roybal, deputy executive director for the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund.

"The self-motivated politicians who peddle these laws in the short-run become the opponents of freedom in the long-run," Roybal continued. "​We urge all politicians to nix discrimination now by rejecting discriminatory laws and passing strong non-discrimination laws."

In an op-ed published Thursday at The Hill, Roybal explained further:

There are many reasons for the sudden interest in this tactic from the opponents of equality—not least of which is the extraordinary progress the LGBTQ people have made in securing marriage equality and public support. Another is the Supreme Court’s extremely controversial Hobby Lobby ruling that was a fundamental attack on reproductive justice. This decision provided a legal context for employers imposing their beliefs on their employees: all in the name of religious liberty. This isn’t religious liberty; it’s persecution in the name of religion.

Writing Friday at The Nation, William Greider concurred that the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision was to blame for the current uproar:

The public wrath directed at God-fearing Republican politicians in Indiana and Arkansas is pounding on the wrong Christians. The real culprits are the five Bible-thumping conservatives on the Supreme Court. They inspired this controversy with their inflammatory decision last year in the Hobby Lobby case.

The Supreme justices ruled then that corporate owners possess religious convictions entitled to First Amendment protection against intrusions by the federal government. That case was about birth control and Obamacare's mandated health-care coverage. But the court's half-baked logic excited the imagination of right-wing activists and lawyers.

If employers can reject the birth control pills for their employees by citing their religious objections to contraception, do employers also have a right to refuse serving gay couples because they abhor same-sex marriages? Conservatives set out to initiate state laws and law suits designed to provoke more constitutional conflicts between church and state—cases that can wind up before the Supreme Court and will be decided by the same right-wing majority that issued the Hobby Lobby ruling.

Still, with so much national attention being focused on this issue, LGBTQ activists and their allies have an opportunity to reclaim their legal footing, Garrett Epps wrote on Thursday for The Atlantic.

"The proponents of these very bad bills are on the defensive right now, largely because national business interests have stepped in," Epps stated. "The forces of equality have the advantage; and while they have it, they would be wise to insist that the new wave of state RFRAs—if they are to be adopted at all—contain no deception and no weasel words that might allow them to be used against civil-rights claims."

It's not just LGBTQ advocates who are concerned about the implications of state-level religious objection laws.

On Friday, the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations described the recent wave of such legislation as " a cynical move intended to protect bias under the guise of religious liberty."

While CAIR said "the federal RFRA is a powerful tool to protect the rights of religious minorities to practice their religion when such practice would violate laws written without their needs in mind," it added:

In contrast, the newer state RFRAs include provisions not in the 1993 federal statute that ensure that they will be used in private lawsuits brought to enforce civil rights laws and to be used by corporate, rather than individual defendants. We can foresee circumstances in which such provisions can be used to permit bias targeting members of minority faiths.

CAIR opposes all forms of discrimination, particularly when such discrimination is given the cover of law.

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