Rusty Thomas of Waco, Texas, preaches outside the Rowan County Clerk's Office in Morehead, Ky., on Sept. 14, 2015. The issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Kentucky and other states has become the latest focal point in the long-running debate over gay marriage, which became legal nationwide after a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Chris Tilley *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-MONTGOMERY-OPED, originally transmitted on June 8, 2016.

The weaponization of religious liberty

(RNS) For the second year in a row, more than 100 pieces of anti-LGBT legislation were introduced in state legislatures during the first few months of the year, many of them promoted as measures to protect religious liberty. How did something as fundamentally American as religious freedom become a culture war weapon against LGBT people and their families?

The religious right has a long history of equating criticism with persecution, and portraying political losses and legal defeats as attacks on faith and freedom. Its followers have been told for years that feminists, liberals, and gays are out to silence people of faith, and even to criminalize Christianity.

There’s a sinister logic to the strategy: It is easier to convince fair-minded people to support discrimination against their gay neighbors if you first convince them that the gay rights movement is out to destroy their churches and families.

But as more Americans came to know their LGBT family members and friends and discovered they were not the demons the religious right made them out to be, the movement to win cultural acceptance and legal equality for LGBT Americans built momentum. And as marriage equality started to become a reality, conservative strategists tried to regain the moral and political high ground by reframing the debate as one of religious liberty.

A group of social conservatives released the Manhattan Declaration in 2009, a manifesto pledging that its signers would refuse to “bend” to “any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family.”

Since then, religious right groups, their allies at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and others have increasingly framed their opposition to marriage equality, nondiscrimination laws, reproductive choice and the contraception coverage requirement under the Affordable Care Act as questions of religious liberty.

They have had mixed results. Their efforts paid off in the Supreme Court, where conservative justices ruled in the Hobby Lobby case that a for-profit corporation could use the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act to seek exemption from a law based on the religious beliefs of company owners.

At the state level this year, they got new bills signed into law in North Carolina and Mississippi, while the Republican governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal, vetoed legislation. Federal legislation to give special legal protection to discrimination grounded in religious belief has failed to move forward.

That mixed record may explain why the movement has thrown so much energy into ugly and baseless fearmongering campaigns against transgender people, portraying their access to facilities that match their gender identity as an open door to child molesters. This, of course, updates an older strategy that was meant to convince Americans that gay men and lesbians posed a dire threat to children.

Pushing these efforts is a massive interconnected collection of legal and political groups, radio and TV networks, political and lobbying organizations, think tanks, colleges, and law schools. Among the most influential are the Family Research Council, Alliance Defending Freedom and the Heritage Foundation.

They and their many allies work together and in parallel to eliminate legal access to abortion and roll back legal protections for LGBT people, couples, and families -- often masking their ultimate objectives by portraying themselves as the victims of religious persecution.

These forces have made religious liberty their rallying cry precisely because genuine religious freedom is such a broadly cherished American ideal. Most Americans believe deeply in religious freedom, but most do not equate religious liberty with a blank check to cause harm or deny others’ rights.

Where the religious right has made progress, it has done so thanks largely to Republican politicians who share its agenda or are afraid of being targeted by those groups. Fortunately, growing support for LGBT equality among Republicans as well as Democrats, and among religious and business leaders, is helping limit the success of the religious right’s determined efforts to pit religious liberty against other constitutional principles.

(Peter Montgomery is a senior fellow at People For the American Way)


  1. You have the right to practice your religion. You don’t have the right to harm others through the practice of your religion.

  2. They want carte blanche to enjoy their religious rights regardless of how that impacts others. Anything else is viewed as persecution against them. Since christians have been an overwhelming majority and power in our government, people forget we are not a christian nation. Atheists, muslims, lgbts and others are now making it clear by trying to remove the unconstitutional acts.It is happening quickly and overwhelming the religious right.

  3. ” I can’t think of a reasonable explanation for such a policy.”

    Here you go:

    Said “men” are generally indistinguishable from basic appearance from women and have a history of being assaulted in more biologically gender specific locker rooms. It makes sense because it allows them a level of privacy and safety.

    There are far more documented instances of Republican politicians doing nasty things in public restrooms than trans people.

    What doesn’t make a lick of sense is the alleged Christian bile against trans people or how it became organized so quickly. At worst transgender is a condition with a clear psychological (and some say physiological) basis. Not so much a classic definition of a “sinner” as it would be of a “lost soul”. Someone who non-bigoted Christian ethics would call for sympathetic treatment.

  4. Way to miss the forest for the trees. 🙂

  5. The lack of sane arguments against such things, expedience, a clearly documented need of a group, lack of harm in doing so (certainly no harm to the privacy of teenage girls using the same facilities).

    Do you think people should be put at risk for life and limb because of ….what? Supposition? Hypotheticals? Unwarranted aspersions of a given group?

  6. I am a man, and I don’t have the “right” to shower with anyone.
    Those who are actually transgender are the ones who are victimized when they use the restrooms, not your teenage daughter.

  7. So you don’t have a problem with forcing teenage boys to share locker rooms and bath rooms with “women”?

    Just askin’.

  8. “men”

    Because post-surgery transgender people don’t exist.

  9. The definitions laid out in the “bathroom bills” these people support makes it a legal requirement for any transgender women among us to join them in the men’s room. I imagine that outcome is the exact reason why the measures are so popular among men. That and the chance to appoint themselves as America’s bathroom police, following random women to the restrooms for “crimes” ranging from not looking like a stereotypical woman, not sounding feminine enough, being a lesbian, or just simply because.

    It is not the recognition of LGBT rights that have perverts so excited, it is instead the suppression of LGBT rights.

  10. No he hasn’t said that locker rooms or bathrooms should be co-ed.

    The directive is from the Department of Justice and the Department of Education and states that a student who’s parents or guardian have informed the school administration asserts a different gender than their birth sex must be treated as a student of the asserted gender for purposes of Title IX. The student can’t change their mind every other day. It requires official notice from the parents.

    The directive states that the school may not require a Transgender individual to use facilities inconsistent with their gender identity nor may it require a Transgender individual to use individual-user options if they are not available to other students.

    The school may provide individual-user options as long as those options are available to all students.

    That’s the reality of the situation. You may still disagree with the directive but now at least you understand what it says. If you don’t believe me, go read it for yourself here:

  11. That’s a full load of horse manure, and you know it.
    Obama wants people who are trans to be in the locker rooms they are in, and you can take your wild hysterics and shove ’em.

  12. Not even close to reality, but I’m not surprised. As the OP pointed, the religious freaks are using ugly lies to justify their inhumane and draconian laws. Nobody is forcing 14 years old girls to have boys in their locker room. Male to female transgenders aren’t boys for purposes of sexual attraction or behavior, they are simply people born with a set of genitalia that don’t match their psychological gender. This has been known for decades, and for decades transgenders have been using the appropriate facilities. It only became a problem when the religious extremists started casting about for new victims after they lost on the SSM issue. It is the transgender children that are being hurt by the hateful lies being told about them and the vile insults thrown at them by ignorant fools.

  13. Get a new song, this one has worn out, mainly because, as you have been told, it is simply not true. In places where transgenders have been allowed to use the appropriate facilities, there have been no reports or issues due to this, except, of course, by the ranting, ignorant parents who believe the hate and lies that are being told..

  14. You are getting tiresome. What the hell does Caitlyn Jenner and Eddie Izzard have to do with anything? Typically you confuse, perhaps willfully, transvestites and transgenders. This is yet another unfounded distortion from the right. It’s all a matter of the right wanting to control the sexual behavior of the population, especially women. By the way, when did you stop beating your wife?

  15. Half of the states had these laws before same-sex marriage was legal. How do they suddenly become “anti-LGBT” bills for those states that have yet to pass them?

  16. I am not shaming anyone. What a silly assertion.

  17. Saw a quote the other day that pretty much sums up a society bent on becoming egalitarian: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” It’s all about identity manipulation. Why don’t people see that they are being manipulated into believing that sexual egalitarianism is possible?

    And most have been pigeon holed into thinking it’s about religious freedom. Well, what about agnostics, atheists or people with philosophic opinions. What if they do not want to hire a transvestite to baby sit their children. Should they be forced? Really?

  18. A trans woman goes into the stall, does her thing, comes out and washes her hands, and leaves. Is there a problem?

  19. Nothing that medication can’t help for you.

  20. Are you saying sexual egalitarianism is not possible?

  21. “There are far more documented instances of Republican politicians doing nasty things in public restrooms than trans people. ”

    Oh Spuddie! That is perfect! I think there needs to be a law relegating Republicans to one, particular, designated shower and bathroom because they’re clearly a danger to society.

  22. ?? Your complaint was about showing/changing. You may be right.

    But we agree that the bathroom thing is overblown and that the safer place for a trans woman is *not* the men’s room.

    You don’t like people agreeing with you?

  23. Well, maybe in some future world there may be a way to genetically engineer a non-sexual human, but then, what’s the point?

  24. You should learn the difference between cross dressers and transgenders. Maybe you should actually get to know some transgendered people in real life instead of acting like an uninformed ass.

  25. “What’s the point?”

    Indeed. That’s funny.

  26. A sign won’t stop predators. You’ve been sharing bathrooms and dressing rooms with trans people for years. Do your research – trans people aren’t the enemy.

    It’s not about bathrooms. Or water fountains. Or bus seats or abortion. It’s about who gets to control you.

  27. A sign won’t stop predators. You’ve been sharing bathrooms and dressing rooms with trans people for years. Do your research – trans people aren’t the enemy.

    It’s not about bathrooms. Or water fountains. Or bus seats or abortion. It’s about who gets to control you.

  28. It’s whatever the directive of the law states. Prez Obama doesn’t write laws thus it’s not up to what Obama thinks. Are you racist?

  29. Prez Obama is the chief law enforcer of the land. If you don’t like the law then vote for those candidates who think like you.

  30. Then remove those showers or install a private changing/shower booth to accommodate each student. Problem solved.

  31. Adults should never be allowed to appear nude in front of nude children.

  32. As well as keep the girls out of boys’ restroom. It works both ways. Actually this country should return to separate schools for each gender as Catholic schools do. This would solve more than just restroom dilemmas.

  33. Let’s form our own religions under the law of religious protections and assert our rights to enforce our beliefs on others. Bring back the Fairness Doctrine and demand equal time on Sunday morning to broadcast our message to others so that they might be saved against angry gods/goddesses who would throw them into those lakes of fire, brimstone, etc.

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