Tip Sheet: How to cover "religious exemptions" court cases, federal guidance, and legislation

This is not about ‘religious freedom’ or ‘religious liberty' -- the accurate term is ‘religious exemptions’

On December 5, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court will take up oral arguments for Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. This case centers around a bakery asking for exemption from Colorado state non-discrimination law based on the owner’s objection to serving gay people.


  • Use the term “religious exemptions” over inaccurate terminology such as “religious freedom” or “religious liberty.”
  • This is not about wedding cakes. Religious exemptions laws would allow doctors, landlords, adoption agencies, funeral homes, and more to legally deny service to LGBTQ families and other marginalized communities simply by citing religious beliefs. Remember to frame all stories in the context of the broader ramifications of these “religious exemptions” cases.
  • Do not pit religion against the LGBTQ community. Include the voices of progressive faith leaders from diverse communities.

This debate around religious exemptions has reached the highest levels of our government, with President Trump threatening multiple sweeping religious exemption executive orders. Since assuming office, the Trump Administration used the argument of religious exemptions to invite taxpayer-funded federal agencies, government employees, and government contractors to legally discriminate against LGBTQ employees and deny women, trans men, and gender non-conforming people access to healthcare. Further, religious exemption legislation is becoming increasingly widespread in statehouses across the country with more than 135 bills introduced in state legislatures in 2016 and 2017, despite the fact that these types of laws run counter to the will of the American public, as shown in a recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).


These tips are intended to help journalists discern myths from facts and report fairly and accurately on religious exemptions. Please consider the following guidelines when covering religious exemptions stories.

DON’T use the terminology “religious freedom” or “religious liberty.” Advocates for these types of bills often describe the issue as purely about religious freedom or liberty.  However, they are actually quite different from religious liberty as it is usually understood. At their core, these cases are not about the right to practice religion freely, but rather using religion as a tool to push for exemptions from laws created to protect fellow citizens.

DO use the terminology “religious exemption.” It is imperative that journalists distinguish between classic religious liberty cases – which Americans of all political persuasions support – and “religious exemptions” cases where a third party is harmed.

DON’T make this all about wedding cakes and flower shops. Religious exemptions have the ability to harmfully affect every part of our lives as LGBTQ people and should not be reduced in scope and scale or made light of in any way.

DO seek to investigate the broad range of ways that religious exemptions can negatively affect the lives of LGBTQ people, including in accessing healthcare, employee benefits, adoption and child protection, domestic violence services, employment, and more. Religious exemptions are a serious issue and can have a serious impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.

DON’T solely frame your story from the point of view of the individual who seeks to discriminate. There are at least two sides for each religious exemption story, and both should be represented.

DO consider how bias framing can affect public opinion surrounding religious exemptions. Example: One survey three years ago, respondents were asked: “Should religiously-affiliated institutions that object to the use of contraceptives be given an exemption from the Affordable Care Act?”  48% said yes, 42% said no, with the rest unsure. The same people were then asked: “Should women employed by Catholic universities and hospitals have the same rights as other women?”  56% said yes, 39% said no.

DON’T take a narrowly focused, one-off view of religious exemption cases. The reality is that the organizations including Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) that are fighting for religious exemptions are the same groups that led the fight against marriage equality and transgender rights, and have supported the criminalization of homosexuality. This anti-LGBTQ agenda has resulted in Southern Poverty Law Center classifying ADF as a designated hate group. It’s not a side-effect that “No Gays Allowed” makes LGBTQ rights second-class; it’s the intended effect.

DO contextualize religious exemption cases within the history of religious exemption legislation that has been advanced historically with the intention of rolling back the rights and freedoms of LGBTQ people in the United States.

DON’T ascribe religious beliefs to entire companies. In our democracy, everyone obeys the same laws.  Businesses are artificial constructs of law.  When you set one up, you’re agreeing to abide by the rules of the marketplace, not the rules of your personal religious beliefs.  That’s how it’s meant to work. Corporations aren’t people.

DO frame religious beliefs as personal and individualized rather than a monolith.

DON’T approach religious exemption cases as a simple story. These cases are about the real and perceived rights of individuals, and they have larger legal, political and historical contexts that need to be considered.

DO ask big questions. Where do you draw the line between a “religious exemptions” and a “separate and unequal” system, where some groups don’t have to obey the same laws as others? When questions of religious liberty are posed in the abstract, everyone understands them.  When they move from theory into practice, it’s not so simple.

DON’T set up a false dichotomy of ‘God versus Gay,’ in your coverage with religious conservatives on one side, and secular LGBTQ activists on the other.  Not only is this an arbitrary and artificial divide, it actually misrepresents how Americans feel about this issue. A survey by the Public Religious Research Institute (PRRI) discovered that a majority of Americans are opposed to “religious exemptions” that would allow discrimination. Further, there was no religious group surveyed in which a majority favored “religious exemptions,” targeting LGBTQ people, including white evangelical Protestants.

DO include progressive voices and progressive faith leaders from diverse communities in the national conversation around religious exemptions.


About GLAAD: GLAAD amplifies the voice of the LGBTQ community by empowering real people to share their stories, holding the media accountable for the words and images they present, and helping grassroots organizations communicate effectively. By ensuring that the stories of LGBTQ people are heard through the media, GLAAD promotes understanding, increases acceptance, and advances equality.