States Pushing 'Religious Freedom' Laws Undermine U.S. Effort for Equality Abroad

03/31/2015 05:50 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Passing discriminatory "religious freedom" laws like those in Indiana and Arkansas is wrong and dangerous. Such laws hurt LGBTI people and their allies and compromise the ability of the United States to speak out against endemic violence against LGBTI individuals across the globe.

We have seen faith leaders around the world support efforts to discriminate against LGBTI people -- in the Philippines, Uganda, Russia and elsewhere. Just this month, Indonesia's central body of Islamic clerics, Majelis Ulama Indonesia, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, that calls for whipping and even the death penalty for men or women engaged in same-sex relations. Does Indiana really want to be seen in such company?

When laws reinforce and legitimize discrimination, when the state treats some people as second class, second rate or worse -- as criminals on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity, it invites the broader public to do the same. We know that discriminatory attitudes and laws spark homophobic and transphobic violence. And worse, the deeper the stigma, the more likely it is that anti-LGBTI violence is unreported, undocumented and unpunished.

Using religion as a pretext for discrimination only deepens the offense.

It is heartening to see the swift condemnation against Indiana's new law from state governments, technology leaders, athletic organizations and community organizations. The pressure should be kept up, even as the governor and lawmakers say they want to "clarify" the law's intent.

Though these laws must be rolled back and others like them opposed, over the last decades the United States has made great progress toward LGBTI equality. Advances within the United States have raised our credibility and potential to join with other countries to make progress on LGBTI rights.

Last month, the State Department appointed Randy Berry as the first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons. "Defending and promoting the human rights of LGBT persons is at the core of our commitment to advancing human rights globally -- the heart and conscience of our diplomacy," Secretary of State John Kerry said at the time.

Yet, if states can get away with passing discriminatory laws, it will not only hurt those in Indiana, Arkansas and other states considering such laws, it will utterly undermine the potential good of the U.S. diplomatic voice in advocating for LGBTI rights globally.