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Brynn Tannehill Headshot

The Right Wing's Winning Argument

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After the Roe v. Wade decision, a woman's access to abortion seemed like an ironclad constitutional guarantee. Now, over 40 years later, access to abortion in many states has returned to pre-Roe conditions. In some ways we are heading back to a time before Griswold v. Connecticut, as the religious right has been arguing that the "religious freedom" of employers trumps a woman's right to birth control.

Hidden in this debacle, though, is foreshadowing for the LGBT community.

After we've enjoyed a string of victories on military service and marriage equality, and with polling numbers consistently improving for us across the board, the religious right has managed to find a new argument that seems to be winning. Conservatives are already beginning to chip away at LGBT rights one law at a time until we are back where we started, and they're doing it under the banner of "religious freedom and liberty." This is a tough narrative to beat, and it is tough to argue against because it is so deeply rooted in the American narrative. Even worse, the LGBT community seems to have no coherent messaging strategy to combat the "religious liberty" argument that anti-LGBT bigots are now applying to everything.

Most religious denominations have picked up on this. The North American Mission Board (NAMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention has forbidden its chaplains not just from ministering to lesbian and gay troops and their spouses but from even officially associating "with a chaplain, contractor or volunteer who personally practices or affirms a 'homosexual lifestyle' or such conduct."

The Catholic Archdiocese for Military Services issued similar guidelines and went a step further. They refer to same-sex marriage as "material cooperation with evil," then they instruct commanders with troops receiving same-sex partner benefits to "[make] known his/her objection to being required to ... participate, as well as on attempting through legal channels to continue to accomplish changes in policy consistent with the historic understanding of marriage and family as based on natural moral law."

Members of my own organization have seen this in effect. One soldier was turned away by a chaplain after she went to him and admitted being transgender. Afterwards the chaplain refused to talk to the soldier again, telling her, "My superiors told me I'm not allowed to deal with this gay stuff."

The House Armed Services Committee has adopted an amendment that expands the so-called "conscience protections" in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Anti-LGBT organizations refer to this as "the religious freedom amendment." It is effectively a license to bully, wherein a unit CO cannot stop anti-LGBT harassment until actual, legally definable harm has come to the victim. The ultimate goal is to put a new DADT in place by ensuring that the military is too hostile an environment for any out LGB person to survive there.

It isn't just in the military that anti-LGBT forces have tried to redefine discrimination as a constitutionally protected form of religious expression. When Tennessee passed a law that nullified all laws and ordinances in the state that protected LGBT people, including one recently passed by the city of Nashville, conservatives hailed it as a victory for "religious liberty." This victory for "religious liberty" has stood up so far in court and provides states with a mechanism to completely bypass the Supreme Court decision of Romer v. Evans. Few people seem to have noticed.

In essence, the argument of religious liberty has already rolled back one of our own Roe v. Wade cases.

Religious freedom or liberty has become a catch-all term to defend every form of anti-LGBT discrimination. Refusing to provide commercial services to lesbians and gays is a "religious liberty" issue. Refusing to provide publicly available goods to LGBT people is a religious freedom issue. Trolley rides for lesbians and gays is a religious freedom issue. Bullying lesbian and gay troops is about religious freedom. The right to bully LGBT children is a matter of religious freedom. The right to discriminate against gays who want to adopt or foster children is about religious freedom. They even hold up a therapist refusing to treat an LGBT person as a matter of religious freedom.

Even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has jumped on the "religious freedom" narrative. Instead of rallying their members to oppose marriage equality itself in Hawaii, they are urging their wards to push legislators for "a strong exemption for people and organizations of faith" that would protect religious groups "from being required to support or perform same-sex marriages or from having to host same-sex marriages or celebrations in their facilities; and protect individuals and small businesses from being required to assist in promoting or celebrating same-sex marriages."

What makes this line of attack most dangerous is that the "religious liberty" issue resonates with the libertarian wing of the party as well. The presentation of a clear, unifying message that doesn't look anti-LGBT on the surface while seeming to embrace an American value makes this the best rallying point that social conservatives have had since marriage in the 1990s. A few media outlets have highlighted this shift, but with little notice.

The most maddening part of this is that the usually nimble progressive and pro-LGBT online media have been slow to react to this consistent, and potentially successful, line of attack. There's no doubt that this has become the right wing's top talking point on all things LGBT. Where's the deluge of snarky humor? The neatly thought-out legal analyses of why LGBT protections are just as constitutional as those created by the 1964 Civil Rights Act? Where are the Facebook memes and the litany of blogs and webcomics assailing this position on legal, moral, logical, intellectual, and ethical grounds?

I don't know. I wish I did. We're letting the opposition run wild with this argument, and it's their main talking point. My take on how to address this is perhaps overly simple, though. If your definition of freedom of religion revolves around whom you get to discriminate against instead of whom you can be kind to, you're doing it wrong.