Religious expression, the myth of the persecuted Christian, and anti-LGBT discrimination

As the movement for marriage equality continues, it is an unfortunate inevitability that backlash from those opposed to it increases. When it comes to public and governmental institutions, fair and equal access is now becoming increasingly protected by law, e.g. the Defense Department's extension of rights to married LGBT couples, the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, and access to public housing for married LGBT couples. Yet, when dealing with private institutions, the issue becomes far more complex and nuanced, especially when anti-LGBT business and private service providers cite their guaranteed freedom of religious expression as a justification for their discrimination.  

A bakery in Oregon recently refused to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple, stating it was their "Christian" obligation to refuse to provided services to an LGBT married couple. After some costly litigation and investigative inquiry by state officials, the bakery chose to close its doors. There was a sign left in the window: "We will continue to stand strong. Your religious freedom is not becoming free anymore".

As society becomes more connected and people become more educated about the lives of LGBT people, tolerance and acceptance increases. Yet, as this slow cultural shift occurs, there is an often unforeseen consequence. Those opposed to LGBT equality on religious grounds now erroneously believe that the diminished influence of their voice entitles them to special protection.

We cannot allow our guaranteed right of religious expression to become a shield for those who choose to oppress. Groups who use their religious beliefs to oppose LGBT equality now believe that there has been some inversion of the social order; they erroneously believe that those who they continue to oppress now are oppressing them. The sign in the Oregon bakery is alarming because it turns the oppressor into a victim. The focus should remain on the lesbian couple who were unfairly denied access to a business service – a secular business whose job is to bake cakes and muffins, not consecrate bread and wine.

It is undeniable that freedom of religious expression is one of the principles which led to the founding of this nation. The Pilgrims left one Plymouth for another in search of a new land where they could worship without fear of persecution. Religious freedom exists in order to prevent discrimination. Using it as a justification for continued discrimination is antithetical to its very purpose.

At one point in time, the Bible and arguments regarding the freedom of religious expression were used as a justification for institutionalized racial discrimination, chattel slavery, and prohibition of interracial marriage. Conservative preachers would cite the Bible as a means of adding divine ordinance to their man-made social constructs of inequality. They were too myopic and arrogant to distinguish between Biblical principle and Biblical practice.

This distinction must also be made in discussions of the law. Laws guaranteeing the freedom of religious expression exist based on the principle – one that is constitutionally enshrined – that none should be discriminated against. When this law is put into practice in a manner that leads to the persecution of others it is a perverted and maligned miscarriage of justice. 

When voices like those of the discriminatory bakery owners are elevated by the media, a dangerous fallacy is perpetuated; the myth that Christians in America are a persecuted group. This myth is the foundation on which those opposed to equality base their distorted view of religious liberty. When anti-LGBT religious activists are given a sounding board by the mainstream media, false credibility is ascribed to them, enabling them to influence a greater number of individuals.  Denying these pundits the ability to express their opinions – regardless of their lunacy – is just as un-American as distorting the definition of freedom of religious expression. Thus, it is the job of the media, in their quest to provide balanced and objective coverage, to use resources like GLAAD’s Commentator Accountability Project in order to uncover the history and credibility of various ant-LGBT commentators. By creating an environment of complete transparency within media coverage, anti-LGBT religious pundits lose their ability to portray themselves as “oppressed” and thus their ability to shield themselves from scrutiny with cries for freedom of religious expression.

The next time you hear a commentator claim that their inability to deny services to LGBT individuals with in a secular context somehow violates their freedom of religious expression, remember two things. First, remember to investigate the credibility of the commentator using GLAAD’s Commentator Accountability Project. Second, remember that using constitutional rights as a means of denying them from others is never acceptable.

If you ever hear any form of defamation against LGBT persons by the media, remember to report the incident to GLAAD!