Report Exposes Deceptions by the Religious Right
In the last few years, legal same-sex marriage has arrived in 19 states and the District of Columbia. The armed forces' "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and federal law, which barred openly gay military service, has been repealed. And for all the religious right and social conservatives' efforts to block such progress, equal rights and social justice for LGBTs, it would appear, are advancing in significant ways.
Detractors of gay rights, however, are far from declaring a truce in the so-called culture wars, let alone acknowledging their defeats. In fact, a new report highlights a stepped-up shift in strategy and tactics as anti-LGBT activists claim they're the ones being oppressed.
"Religious right leaders hold themselves up as the victims," said Michael B. Keegan, president of People For the American Way, which released its findings last month. "This is a powerful talking point, even if not true. We need to expose these distortions for what they really are - an attempt to protect the right's ability to discriminate and push its policy preferences on the rest of us."
Founded in 1981 by television writer and producer Norman Lear, PFAW is a nonprofit liberal to progressive advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Its mission is to make the American way, or "the promise of America real," including "equality, freedom of speech, freedom of religion" and the right of all Americans "to seek justice in a court of law" and "the right to cast a vote that counts."
The organization's nine page report, "The Persecution Complex: The Religious Right's Deceptive Rallying Cry," documents how religious right activists and elected officials attempt to portray the increasing unpopularity of their stances on a number of cultural issues - for instance, same-sex marriage, public prayer, and Christmas celebrations - as evidence of oppression of their religious faith at the same time they represent themselves as societal bulwarks against a culture run amok with immorality.
Some examples - or dire myths - from the PFAW study point to the tactics and strategy:
● Two middle-school girls are forced into a lesbian kiss as part of an anti-bullying program.
● An Air Force sergeant is fired because he opposes same-sex marriage.
● A high-school track team is disqualified from a meet after an athlete thanks God for the team's victory.
● A man affixing lights to a Christmas tree falls victim to a wave of "War-on-Christmas" violence.
Reality, however, tells a different narrative.
"None of these stories is true," the PFAW report states. "But each has become a stock tale for religious right broadcasters, activists, and in some cases elected officials. These myths - which are becoming ever more pervasive in the right-wing media - serve to bolster a larger story, that of a majority religious group in American society becoming a persecuted minority, driven underground in its own country."
The religious right and social conservatives are "reframing political losses as religious oppression," PFAW's study suggests, in an "attempt to build justification for turning back advances in gay rights, reproductive rights, and religious liberty for minority faiths."
And while "the religious persecution narrative is nothing new - it has long been at the core of the right's reaction to secular government and religious pluralism," the report notes, the persecution meme "has taken off in recent years in reaction to gay rights and reproductive freedom, and to an increasingly secular and pluralistic society."
The religious right's "frantic warnings" have gone so far as to claim that "conservative Christians are losing their right to free speech" and "that the U.S. is on the verge of instituting unconstitutional hate speech laws," and even "that religious faith itself might soon be criminalized," according to PFAW.
The organization's report takes aim not only at the myths, but also the myth makers, including "the most prolific manufacturer and promoter," Fox News reporter Todd Starnes, host of Fox News and Commentary , heard on hundreds of radio stations. Starnes, who holds strongly conservative views, is a regular contributor to Fox and Friends and FoxNews.com.
Take the case of Air Force Sergeant Phillip Monk, who, according to Starnes, was "relieved of his duties after he disagreed with his openly gay commander when she wanted to severely punish an instructor who had expressed religious objections to homosexuality."
Monk's story apparently struck a resonate chord with social conservatives dismayed over the 2010 repeal of DADT.
By 2013, the religious right had spun Monk's alleged aggrievement into a reverse discrimination "that Christians were now the victims of a new 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy," according to PFAW.
During a Values Voter Summit panel on the alleged development of anti-Christian persecution, Monk, through a video produced by the anti-gay Family Research Council, told viewers how he was "reassigned by his commander because of his belief that marriage is the union of a man and a woman."
But a later Air Force investigation found that "Monk was not removed from his position, but rather moved as scheduled to another Lackland unit, an assignment he was notified of in April," according to the Military Times.
Similarly, the PFAW report debunks the myth of the forced middle-school lesbian kiss and the athlete disqualified for thanking God. "The middle school girls were never required to kiss," PFAW noted. "The track athlete admitted he was disqualified for taunting and disrespecting a referee."
Altogether, "gay rights" serve as "the moral test for our time," the report noted, "warning that every advance in the rights of LGBT people detracts from the rights of people of faith who have religious objections to homosexuality."
PFAW's findings are similar to those of Jay Michaelson, Ph.D., in his 2013 report for Political Research Associates entitled "Redefining Religious Liberty: The Hidden Assault on Civil Rights." Michaelson's report highlights the deep roots of the persecution narrative that lay at the core of religious conservatives' response to desegregation, prayer in public schools, and abortion rights advances in Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Hobby Lobby and ENDA
Furthermore, Michaelson, along with a growing number of national and statewide LGBT organizations, are coming out against the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act, saying that while it bans workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the federal law also would allow religious organizations to discriminate against LGBTs even in non-ministerial or pastoral capacities.
Last week the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force became the largest LGBT organization to date to change course on ENDA, when its affiliated Action Fund announced it would not longer support the proposed legislation.
NGLTF Executive Director Rea Carey, writing in the Advocate , said the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in the Hobby Lobby case changed the landscape for religious exemptions.
In that case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., the court ruled 5-4 that the Department of Health and Human Services regulations requiring employers to provide their female employees with no-cost access to contraception violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Advocates for LGBT equality maintain the proposed religious exemption included in the current version of ENDA is unprecedented in civil rights legislation and would in effect gut the non-discrimination protections.
The Bay Area Reporter reported last month that several other organizations, such as the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center, no longer support ENDA.
Full equality advocates, including Michaelson, a visiting scholar at Brown University, also voice concern about social conservatives' efforts to empower discrimination against LGBTs.
"Religious conservatives have really succeeded at 'moving the goalposts' here," he said. "Just two years ago, this kind of broad exemption was a huge compromise for the Obama administration, in the context of the Affordable Care Act. Now, ENDA's backers are offering it up as the default position. That is a huge, silent victory. And we all know what the ultimate goal is: Religious exemptions for anyone who wants one, including corporations and individuals. That would represent a tragic erosion of the rule of law."
Michaelson said that he hoped progressive members of Congress would insist on an "appropriate, narrow exemption for churches and religious functionaries, while rejecting this over-broad one that would leave hospital orderlies, school cafeteria workers, and shopping mall security guards without protection."
The Hobby Lobby decision has prompted one LGBT legal activist to say it is "a dangerous and radical departure from existing law that creates far more questions than it answers," according to Keen News Service, quoting NCLR legal director Shannon Minter.
"Thankfully, however, the majority recognized that even under its sweeping new rule, corporations cannot rely on claims of religious liberty to evade non-discrimination laws," Minter explained. "That limitation is extremely important and means that employers cannot exploit today's decision to justify discrimination against LGBT people or other vulnerable groups, but we will need to be vigilant to make sure that principle is respected and enforced."
University of Pennsylvania law professor Tobias Barrington Wolff. Photo: Courtesy University of Pennsylvania
In a similar vein, law professor Tobias Barrington Wolff offered his perspective.
"In the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision, opponents of LGBT equality are trying to reverse the progress we have made on workplace protections," Wolff said in an email. "As Chris Geidner [legal editor at the online news site BuzzFeed] reports, a group of advocates including Rick Warren have published a letter seeking to pressure the White House to insert a broad and unprecedented religious exemption in the forthcoming executive order on federal contractors, and they point to Hobby Lobby as one principal justification.
"It is important to understand that Hobby Lobby in fact rejects the argument that religious exercise can be an excuse for invidious discrimination," such as anti-gay and anti-transgender bias, Wolff added.
Wolff, who teaches classes on sexuality and the law, same-sex marriage, and human rights at the University of Pennsylvania, and previously advised President Barack Obama on LGBT issues during the 2008 campaign, pointed to a key passage in the court's decision, which he said "was inserted specifically to respond to the suggestion that its ruling could authorize discrimination in the workplace."
That passage reads: "The principal dissent raises the possibility that discrimination in hiring, for example on the basis of race, might be cloaked as religious practice to escape legal sanction. See post, at 32-33. Our decision today provides no such shield. The government has a compelling interest in providing an equal opportunity to participate in the workforce without regard to race, and prohibitions on racial discrimination are precisely tailored to achieve that critical goal."
As Wolff explained, "In the days ahead, it is important that advocates and leaders strongly push out the message that the Hobby Lobby decision strongly supports the enforceability of anti-discrimination laws, even in the face of religious exemption arguments," adding, "Hobby Lobby represents a vindication of the principle that anti-discrimination protections should trump religious objections in the workplace."