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The weaponization of religious liberty

(RNS) How did something as fundamentally American as religious freedom become a culture war weapon against LGBT people and their families?

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.

(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)

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