Local Faith Leaders Speak Out Against 'Religious Freedom' Laws

By Jason A. Michael

It was the crowning glory of the modern gay rights movement. Last June the Supreme Court granted gays the right to marry. And so many mistakenly thought the battle had been won and that equal rights for gays would be the law of the land. If only it were so.

Suddenly, in the wake of the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, so-called 'religious liberty' laws that sought to enshrine the right to discriminate against LGBT folk in the name of religion began popping up all across the country. These laws seek to allow medical professionals the right to refuse to treat LGBT people, to allow business owners the right to refuse them service and essentially allow anyone who claims religious exemption the right to refuse to deal with those who fall under the rainbow banner.

Even before the ruling -- and perhaps in anticipation of it -- Michigan saw the proposal of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It passed the House in a 59-50 vote along party lines, but it stalled in the Senate. Though Gov. Rick Snyder had long promised not to sign a stand-alone RFRA, he saddened many in the LGBT community when just weeks before the Supreme Court ruling he signed into law legislation that allows faith-based adoption agencies to cite religious beliefs as reason to not serve potential adoptive parents.

According to CNN, 21 states have enacted religion freedom laws since 1993 and 10 additional states are currently considering similar legislation. It's a trend that clearly targets LGBT families and aims to ensure their continued second-class citizen status. "Discrimination is pernicious, subtle and everywhere," said Liz Hoban, pastoral director of Christian education for the Congregational Church of Birmingham-United Church of Christ. "We have to be on our guard and scrutinize all the bills and laws -- everything that comes through -- and be looking for discrimination and put a stop to it."

Frank D'Amore, president of Dignity Detroit, said this is a last ditch effort by conservatives that is likely to fail. "Being that the Supreme Court finally recognized marriage equality they've decided to go this route," D'Amore said. "They're going to keep trying and trying and trying, but I don't think it's going to go anywhere."

States that have enacted such legislation have often faced huge backlashes, including boycotts and loss of support from business leaders. The laws will likely face legal challenges down the road, but for now most remain firmly in place.

"I think people need to start realizing that hatred toward different groups of people has nothing to do with religion," said Michael Tabaczynski, also of Dignity Detroit. "Religion is about loving one another, treating everybody with dignity and respect. I think people are just trying to find any which way they can find to continue discriminating against gays."

Ben Gabel, director of service and social justice for Birmingham Unitarian Church, said those who seek to do so are getting religion wrong. "Using religion as a means to discriminate against other people is not a religion that's doing it well," he said. "I think the purpose of religion is to see how we can improve the lives of others, social justice, and how we share compassion and love for others. So when we embody religion around hatred, that is not a religion that is doing it well."

Particularly upsetting to Hoban is the law signed last year by Snyder that allows faith-based adoption agencies to discriminate against potential gay parents. "I am totally opposed to any obstructions to adoptions by caring parents," she said. "We have a world with many children who don't have parents and it's unconscionable that we would obstruct people from helping or advocating for children who so badly need that help."

In the end, said Hoban, the persistence of LGBT people and their allies will pay off. "We won a battle and we will continue through every hurdle and through every difficulty to continue to win rights and equality and justice for the community," she said. "We must not lose courage, and that is why the communities of faith are so important for buoying up people and helping them continue in the struggle."

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