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(c) by Mary Griggs
religious freedomWe have seen in the debates about the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act to the fights for marriage equality a reframing of the term ‘religious liberty.’

Religious liberty is an idea essential to America. It even predates the foundation of our Republic as religious persecution was the reason so many of our forbearers left the Old World.

In order to accommodate concerns about religious liberty a lot of LGBT equality legislation (and some health care bills) contains broad exemptions for religious organizations. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough for some people. There are religious extremists who are now demanding that any exemptions apply to any individual who objects to the law for moral reasons.

Across the nation, including here in Louisiana, legislators have or are proposing laws to give stronger legal standing to people who claim the government burdened their ability to practice their religion. Such legislation protects “sincerely held religious beliefs” from infringement unless there is “a compelling governmental interest.”

Instead of fighting for the right to practice their beliefs, owners of small businesses are claiming that they can’t provide a service like photography or wedding cakes for same-sex couples because it is “against their religion.” They are then treated as heroes by Faux News pundits, especially when they lose due to non-discrimination protections.

Even worse is how protections against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination are being denigrated by religious extremists. Just last year, Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX) appeared on Tony Perkins’s radio show to describe Employment Non-discrimination legislation as “part of this administration’s ongoing war on religion.”

At the beginning of March, the Family Research Council sent out a fundraising email warning its members that this “dangerous” bill is possible. Tony Perkins explained that ENDA would “give special rights to men and women who engage in homosexual behavior.” He even had a list of reasons to be against it-

ENDA–the Employment Non-Discrimination Act–is dangerous. It feeds on freedom, primarily the freedom of religion and speech: not in theory, but on a practical, everyday level. It leaves few freedoms behind.

Yes, the bill has a fair-sounding name, but in fact, ENDA would give special rights to men and women who engage in homosexual behavior. It will force Christian schools and colleges, Christian-owned businesses, day care centers, and other organizations to employ people who make their sexual behavior an issue as they parade their proclivities into the workplace.

In Tony Perkins’s America, having a job is a “special right” that LGBT people do not deserve.

Employment non discrimination enjoys widespread public support — indeed, far greater public support than does marriage equality. Polling of likely 2012 voters by the Center for American Progress showed nearly three-fourths supporting protections from workplace discrimination. Even among voters with an unfavorable view of gay people, half supported workplace protections.

Discrimination is not an American value and it is not religious value.

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism coordinated over 35 religious congregations, organizations and institutions to release a letter in 2012 decrying workplace discrimination against LGBT employees and publicly endorsing ENDA.

By all means, religious institutions should not be compelled to violate the religious precepts on which they are founded. We can respect the protections for religious institutions afforded by the First Amendment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 while ensuring that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are protected from baseless discrimination in the workplace.

Allowing religious extremists to reframe the issue for individual beliefs, however, will hinder our path to equality. A business which chooses to be “no LGBT’s allowed” because of the business owner’s religious beliefs should not be given a free pass.

Do we want to live in a world where social workers are allowed to refuse services to LGBT people, where schools get to fire unmarried women for becoming pregnant, where doctors can refuse to treat AIDS patients, where pharmacies decide not to fill prescriptions for birth control or where florists can refuse to sell flowers to gay and lesbian couples?

Businesses should not be allowed to discriminate and claim religious liberty as the basis.

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