By Chuck Colbert
Within in a few short years now, legal same-sex marriage has arrived in 19 states and the District of Columbia. The armed forces’ “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and federal law, which barred openly gay military service, has been repealed. And for all the Religious Right and social conservatives’ efforts to block such progress, equal rights for LGBTs, it would appear, are advancing in significant ways.
Far from it, however, detractors of gay rights are declaring a truce in the culture wars. A new report highlights a stepped-up strategy as anti-LGBT activists claim their opposition to full equality for gays and reproductive choice amounts to oppression of their religious beliefs and liberties.
“Religious Right leaders hold themselves up as the victims,” said Michael B. Keegan, president of People For the American Way’s (PFAW), which released its findings last month. “This is a powerful talking point, even if not true. We need to expose these distortions for what they really are — an attempt to protect the Right’s ability to discriminate and push its policy preferences on the rest of us.”
PFAW is a non-profit liberal to progressive advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.
The organization’s nine page report, “The Persecution Complex: The Religious Right’s Deceptive Rallying Cry,” documents how Religious Right activists and elected officials attempt to portray the increasing unpopularity of their stances on a number of cultural issues — same-sex marriage, public prayer and Christmas celebrations among others — as evidence of their oppression as they represent themselves as societal bulwarks against a culture run amok with immorality.
Some examples — or dire myths — from the PFAW study point to the tactics and strategy:
Two middle-school girls are forced into a lesbian kiss as part of an anti-bullying program.
An Air Force sergeant is fired because he opposes same-sex marriage.
A high-school track team is disqualified from a meet after an athlete thanks God for the team’s victory.
A man affixing lights to a Christmas tree falls victim to a wave of “War-on-Christmas” violence.
Reality, however, tells a different narrative.
“None of these stories is true,” the PFAW report states. “But each has become a stock tale for Religious Right broadcasters, activists and, in some cases, elected officials. These myths — which are becoming ever more pervasive in the right-wing media — serve to bolster a larger story, that of a majority religious group in American society becoming a persecuted minority, driven underground in its own country.”
The Religious Right and social conservative are “reframing political losses as religious oppression,” PFAW’s study suggests, in an “attempt to build justification for turning back advances in gay rights, reproductive rights and religious liberty for minority faiths.”
And while “the religious persecution narrative is nothing new — it has long been at the core of the Right’s reaction to secular government and religious pluralism,” the report notes, the persecution meme “has taken off in recent years in reaction to gay rights and reproductive freedom and to an increasingly secular and pluralistic society.”
The Religious Right’s “frantic warnings” have gone so far, claiming that “conservative Christians are losing their right to free speech” and “that the U.S. is on the verge of instituting unconstitutional hate speech laws” — and even “that religious faith itself might soon be criminalized,” according to PFAW.
The organization’s report takes aim at both myths and mythmakers, including “the most prolific manufacturer and promoter,” Fox News reporter Todd Starnes, host of Fox News & Commentary, heard on hundreds of radio stations.
Take the case of Air Force Sgt. Phillip Monk, who, according to Starnes, was “relieved of his duties after he disagreed with his openly gay commander when she wanted to severely punish an instructor who had expressed religious objections to homosexuality.”
Monk’s story struck a resonate chord with social conservatives dismayed over the 2010 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
By 2013, the Religious Right had spun Monk’s alleged aggrievement into reverse discrimination “that Christians were now the victims of a new ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy,'” according to PFAW.
During a Values Voter Summit panel on the alleged development of anti-Christian persecution, Monk, through a video produced by the anti-gay Family Research Council, told viewers how he was “reassigned by his commander because of his belief that marriage is the union of a man and a woman.”
An Air Force investigation, however, found that “Monk was not removed from his position, but rather moved as scheduled to another Lackland unit, an assignment he was notified of in April,” according to Military Times.
Similarly, PFWA debunks the myth of the forced middle-school lesbian kiss and the athlete disqualified for thanking God. “The middle school girls were never required to kiss,” PFAW notes. “The track athlete admitted he was disqualified for taunting and disrespecting a referee.”
Altogether, “gay rights” serve as “the moral test for our time,” the report notes, “warning that every advance in the rights of LGBT people detracts from the rights of people of faith who have religious objections to homosexuality.”
PFAW’s findings are similar to those of Jay Michaelson, Ph.D., in his 2013 report for Political Research Associates’ “Redefining Religious Liberty: The Hidden Assault on Civil Rights,” which highlights the deep roots of the persecution narrative that lay at the core of religious conservatives’ response to desegregation, prayer in public schools and abortion rights’ advances in Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court landmark decision.
Furthermore, Michaelson along with a growing number of national and statewide LGBT organizations, have come out against the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), saying that while it bans workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the federal law also would allow religious organizations to discriminate against LGBTs even in non-ministerial or pastoral capacities.
Advocates for LGBT equality maintain the proposed religious exemption, unprecedented in civil rights legislation, would in effect gut ENDA’s non-discrimination protections.
Equality advocates also voice concern about social conservatives’ efforts to empower discrimination against LGBTs, including Michaelson, who is a visiting scholar at Brown University.
“Employment non-discrimination is vitally important, but at what cost?” Michaelson asked. “Hopefully, progressive members of Congress will insist on an appropriate, narrow exemption for churches and religious functionaries, while rejecting this over-broad one that would leave hospital orderlies, school cafeteria workers and shopping mall security guards without protection.”
More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in its Hobby Lobby decision has prompted one LGBT legal activist to say it is “a dangerous and radical departure from existing law that creates far more questions that it answers,” according to Keen News Service quoting Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
“Thankfully, however, the majority recognized that even under its sweeping new rule, corporations cannot rely on claims of religious liberty to evade non-discrimination laws,” he explained. “That limitation is extremely important and means that employers cannot exploit today’s decision to justify discrimination against LGBT people or other vulnerable groups, but we will need to be vigilant to make sure that principle is respected and enforced.”
The Court ruled by a 5 to 4 majority on June 30 that federal law may not require a closely held commercial employer to provide health-insurance coverage for contraception if that employer claims that to do so violates his or her personal religious beliefs.
In a similar vein, University of Pennsylvania law professor Tobias Barrington Wolff offered his perspective. “In the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision, opponents of LGBT equality are trying to reverse the progress we have made on workplace protections,” he said in email correspondence. “As Chris Geidner [legal editor at the online news organization BuzzFeed] reports, a group of advocates including Rick Warren have published a letter seeking to pressure the White House to insert a broad and unprecedented religious exemption in the forthcoming Executive Order on federal contractors, and they point to Hobby Lobby as one principal justification. It is important to understand that Hobby Lobby in fact rejects the argument that religious exercise can be an excuse for invidious discrimination,” such as anti-gay and anti-transgender bias.
Wolff pointed to a key passage in the Court’s decision, which he said “was inserted specifically to respond to the suggestion that its ruling could authorize discrimination in the workplace.”
That passage reads: “The principal dissent raises the possibility that discrimination in hiring, for example on the basis of race, might be cloaked as religious practice to escape legal sanction. See post, at 32-33. Our decision today provides no such shield. The Government has a compelling interest in providing an equal opportunity to participate in the workforce without regard to race, and prohibitions on racial discrimination are precisely tailored to achieve that critical goal.” As Wolff explained, “In the days ahead, it is important that advocates and leaders strongly push out the message that the Hobby Lobby decision strongly supports the enforceability of anti-discrimination laws, even in the face of religious exemption arguments,” adding, “Hobby Lobby represents a vindication of the principle that anti-discrimination protections should trump religious objections in the workplace.”