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Rev. Mel White Headshot

The Religious Exemption: A Clear and Present Danger to LGBTQ Rights

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The current U.S. Supreme Court case Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby is simply the most recent ploy by the religious right to superimpose their family values on the rest of us. According to their lawyers, Hobby Lobby is a mom and pop craft supply business owned and operated by devout Christians whose only concern is saving the lives of the unborn.

More specifically, David and Barbara Green, Hobby Lobby's owners, object to the Affordable Care Act's regulation that forces a company to provide its female employees with health insurance that provides morning after pills and intrauterine devices, even if doing so would violate the strong religious beliefs of the family that owns the business. In other words, they are asking for a religious exemption to avoid complying with Obamacare.

Fallacy #1: The Greens believe that life begins at conception and because both contraceptives prevent embryos from implanting in a woman's uterus the Greens claim they will be complicit in abortion. Whenever you think life begins, it is difficult to understand how stopping a sperm from reaching an egg makes you an abortionist.

Fallacy #2: The Greens also believe that the contraceptive devices they oppose will cause abortion even after fertilization has taken place when real (not religion based) science proves the opposite. The contraceptives in question will not work (not abort) after the sperm and the egg are comfortably settled in.

It is difficult to believe that the Greens are sincere in their effort to protect their employees from abortion on demand. Three months after they filed their lawsuit, the Hobby Lobby 401(k) employee retirement plan held more than $73 million in mutual funds with investments in companies that produce emergency contraceptive pills, intrauterine devices, and drugs commonly used in abortions. Sincere or not, this is another fallacy-based attempt by the religious right to undermine rights and protections guaranteed all Americans.

Also, is it possible that the Green's don't understand what might happen to corporate governance if the Supreme Court decides that a corporation can exercise religion? Imagine the chaos company executives will face if shareholders demand that their corporations live up to their religious beliefs. Already a staggering 25 percent of shareholder proposals are made by religious organizations to Fortune 200 companies. Do the Greens really mean to open that floodgate?

What happens when conservative (Southern Baptist) shareholders demand that corporate executives put in place employee hiring or deportment rules that reflect their literal understanding of the Ten Commandments? What happens when liberal (Episcopal) shareholders demand that 25 percent of corporate profits be designated to help end global warming? Incorporating has always provided a wall of protection against the endless sectarian demands of shareholders whatever their religious beliefs. Do the Greens really want that wall to come down?

Here's where it get scary. Hobby Lobby is no mom and pop operation. With 28,000 employees in 602 big box stores across the nation this mammoth corporation generates more than $3.3 billion in sales every year. Forbes pegs the Green's personal fortune at $5.1 billion. In 2012, Forbes also discloses the ultimate goal of their charitable endeavors: Hobby Lobby's cash spigot currently makes [Green] the largest individual donor to evangelical causes in America.

In 2004, while Gary and I were still living across the street from Jerry Falwell's mega-church in Lynchburg, Virginia, Hobby Lobby donated an 888,000-square-foot Ericsson plant to Falwell's Liberty University. With another $10 million gift to Liberty (currently with 50,000 students on and off campus) and a $70 million pledge to Oral Roberts University the Greens have become the major financial force shaping a whole new generation of fundamentalist Christians in universities with strict anti-gay policies where students are taught that homosexuality is a sickness and a sin.

Hobby Lobby also has funding ties to a network of activist groups deeply engaged in pushing a Christian agenda into American law. Here's where the LGBTQ community needs to see the connection between Hobby Lobby and the religious right's determination to reverse our gains and eliminate our rights.

Hobby Lobby has donated tens of millions of dollars to the National Christian Charitable Foundation (nearly $65 million in 2009 alone). In turn, the NCCF donated much of Hobby Lobby's money to anti-gay groups including organizations in Arizona working to pass a law [SB 1062] that would make it legal for businesses to refuse to serve LGBTQ customers. The bill may have been vetoed in Arizona but the same Green-backed attempt to deny service to LGBTQ Americans is spreading across the U.S.

In Kansas, for example, House Bill 2453 allows hotels, restaurants and stores in the state to refuse to serve gay couples if it would be contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs. The bill would also allow government clerks to refuse to sign same-sex marriage licenses without the threat of a lawsuit. The Human Rights Campaign is monitoring more than a half-dozen similar bills across the country, all introduced in 2014.

Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Arizona's SB 1062 are very similar examples of the clandestine misuse of the religious exemption by the religious right. Along with their highly visible national anti-gay-rights campaigns, their organizers are spending more of their seemingly endless resources waging war against us state by state. Death by a thousand cuts is their latest strategy. Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby is another shameless attempt to use the religious exemption to superimpose their values on the rest of us, this time in small increments hoping we will not notice until it's too late.

The religious exemption is also a clear and present danger to our hopes for passing let alone enforcing the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. Senator Orin Hatch, not an ally of our community, decided to vote for ENDA during its successful passage in the Senate (Nov. 7, 2013) because the bill had a robust religious exemption built in.

Here's the danger. The religious exemption will never be robust enough for extremists on the religious and political right. And if there is some kind of miracle that ENDA gets passed by the current sanity-deprived U.S. House of Representatives, there is a good chance that the religious right and their allies will find all kinds of creative ways to undermine its effectiveness.

The U.S. Supreme Court will announce its decision in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby in June, 2014. Supreme Court watchers are already predicting that the Greens and their religious and political allies on the right will win. I'm not so sure. I still have hope that once again Justice Roberts will show his courage and support the rights and protections of all Americans. But if Hobby Lobby wins its religious exemption our battle for LGBTQ civil rights just might have to begin all over again.