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Bigotry for Me, But Not for Thee: The Religious Right and Its Selective Use of Anti-Discrimination Law

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One of the lies of the religious right is that its opposition to gays being protected by anti-discrimination laws stems from a desire for liberty. Claims of a defense of individual liberty are often made by religious right front groups that themselves pursue anti-discrimination lawsuits.

The misnamed "Liberty Institute" has filed a claim of discrimination, saying that Craig James was fired from FOX Sports "due to his sincerely held religious beliefs." It claims FOX "engaged in religious discrimination through disparate treatment. James is a failed right-wing candidate and is using this to garner publicity for his crusade as a defender of "Christian values."

Notice something in the claim. According to Liberty Institute, FOX does not have the right to "discriminate" against James because of his "sincerely held religious belief" (SHRB). In Arizona, similar institutes -- The Center for Arizona Policy and the Alliance Defending Freedom -- wrote legislation saying that only people with "sincerely held religious beliefs" would be allowed to discriminate under the law.

Here you get to the crux of what fundamentalist policy groups are attempting to do: They want to establish an inequality of rights, giving them rights denied to all other Americans.

A SHRB means they can't be discriminated against, at least according to their filing in Texas, while a SHRB allows them to discriminate against anyone else. In their eyes, the law is supposed to be a one-way street protecting them, and only them. They may discriminate to their heart's content, but all other Americans are bound by anti-discrimination legislation.

A non-religious bigot is out of luck in the views of the Christian right. Only bigotry founded in religious justification should exempt one from the law.

Consider what this law really would have meant. If a "sincerely held religious belief" exempts one from certain laws -- and how widely this would apply apply is not yet determined -- then a couple of things have to happen. First, government has to differentiate between "religious" belief and nonreligious beliefs. One is exempt; the other is not. Second, government gets to decide which beliefs are "sincerely held" and which are not. This is inviting government to intrude in religious matters at an unprecedented level, to the point of deciding which religious beliefs it will acknowledge as "sincerely held."

On the basis of those determinations, government will then grant privileges to some, denied to the rest of us. This is establishment of religion on the installment plan.

Certainly, if you believe the religious right, you would think every other anti-discrimination case is about sexual orientation. In fact, that isn't the case. There are far more cases where religious people claim they are being discriminated against -- sometimes in the most dubious of circumstances.

In 2009 alone there were 3,386 religious discrimination cases filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Businesses had to pay out $7.6 million in compensation. Since then, the numbers have gone up, and none of this includes cases brought only at the state or municipal levels. But, you won't hear the religious right talking about these cases; instead it will focus entirely on a tiny number of cases of anti-gay discrimination, portraying themselves out as victims of litigation, even as it pursues using the very laws they damn.

Air Force officer Phillip Monk, with the help of the Liberty Institute, claimed a superior officer, a lesbian, discriminated against him by relieving him of duty and having transferred allegedly because of his anti-gay view. The military response was that Monk had put in for a transfer of duty himself and knew it was coming.

The Alliance Defending Freedom claimed local registrars in Minnesota should be allowed to refuse to do their job when it comes to registering same-sex marriages. In this case, the ADF argued that this should be allowed for any "sincerely held religious or moral beliefs." Of course, in this case they only argued it against gay marriages. Whether registrars could have moral beliefs about interracial marriages or Jews was not addressed. The ADF urged any registrars who didn't want to do their job to contact them, but only if anti-gay.

Tanisha Matthews, a fundamentalist Christian who worked at Wal-Mart, preached at a gay employee telling her she was going to Hell. The victim of the sermon said Matthews was "screaming" and other employees confirmed the incident. Matthews was fired for harassing another employee and sued Wal-Mart for discrimination on religious grounds.

Fundamentalist Richard Peterson, while working for Hewlett-Packard, put up an anti-gay poster in the workplace, visible to other employees and clients. His supervisor took it down and told him it was harassing. He was suspended with pay -- a paid vacation, in other words -- but upon his return, put up the anti-gay poster once again and was fired. He claimed the company violated his right to expressing religious beliefs "in the workplace."

The right-wing Acton Institute argued that Catholic Charities should have "freedom to hire without government interference," meaning anti-discrimination laws. Yet, the charities were not privately financed Catholic groups, but organizations relying on state funding. Religious-right groups complained, because Catholic Charities in Illinois weren't allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples in adoptions and child-placement. They neglected to mention that the group was acting on behalf of the state Department of Children and Family Services and funded by the taxpayers. Apparently "religious freedom" means they can take funds from gay taxpayers, while simultaneously refusing to give them the services they paid for.

The religious right is not making a principled case that employers should have the right to discriminate, since it quite explicitly rejects that argument when using anti-discrimination laws on its own behalf. What it wants are privileges that apply only to itself, and detrimental laws specifically aimed at gay and lesbian people. This is what "religious freedom" means to the religious right.