Misusing Religious Liberty to Justify Discrimination

As more people gain greater equality under the law in this country, we are seeing a troubling push to allow anyone, including business owners and public officials, to use their religious beliefs as an excuse to discriminate. Texans Equal Under Law was formed to fight these efforts, which undermine our core American values of fairness and equality. Has someone misused religion to discriminate against you? We want to know about it.

Religious Freedom

Religious freedom is one of our most fundamental rights as Americans. That’s why it’s protected in the state and federal constitution. Yet we see an increase in calls to allow government officials and businesses to use religion to discriminate and to allow individuals to impose their religious beliefs on others. These efforts are harmful, wrong and unconstitutional.

Current Law in Texas 

In 1999, a bipartisan majority in the Texas Legislature passed and then-Gov. Bush signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). For 15 years this law has worked well to protect religious freedom for all Texans while also preserving the ability of government to enforce civil rights laws meant for everyone’s health and safety. The existing law includes carefully crafted language that has helped avoid unnecessary lawsuits and ensure that the law is not abused.

During the 2015 Legislative Session, State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) and state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) proposed state constitutional amendments that would have swept away this language. Their Indiana-style "religious refusal" legislation would have led to abuse of the law, allowed people to use religion as a weapon to harm others, and undermined the fundamental principle that laws should apply to everyone. Thankfully, the proposals were defeated, but we expect to see similar efforts again in the 2017 Legislative Session. 

Legislative Attack on LGBT Community in Texas

Even before the Supreme Court ruled in June that the freedom to marry is a constitutional right for same-sex couples in all 50 states, Texas legislators attempted to pass more than 20 bills that would have subjected lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to discrimination and even criminal prosecution. The bills included measures that would have allowed the use of religion to discriminate, subverted the Supreme Court ruling, and swept away local anti-discrimination protections.

Opponents of equality used public hearings for these bills to promote offensive scare stories and vicious rhetoric attacking LGBT people, including comparing same-sex marriage to bestiality and pedophilia. Thanks to bipartisan opposition, lawmakers sent to the governor only one watered-down bill. That bill, SB 2065, essentially restates what the U.S. and state constitutions as well as state law already guarantee: the right of clergy to refuse to perform marriages that conflict with their religious beliefs — a right fully supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and Texas Freedom Network. 

Denying Women Basic Healthcare

Following federal passage of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), some employers have sought a religious exemption from the requirement that health insurance plans for workers include coverage for birth control. The federal government already exempted churches and other houses of worship as well as certain religious nonprofit organizations. Then, in a 2014 case involving Hobby Lobby, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that closely held, for-profit companies had a right to refuse, on religious grounds, to provide contraceptive coverage in their workers’ insurance plans.

Almost all women use birth control at some point in their lives, and it is unthinkable that we could go back to a time when women could not readily access it or had to pay substantially more for their insurance than men. Everyone is entitled to his or her own religious beliefs, but that does not mean, and has never meant, that employers can use religion as an excuse to deny their workers benefits required by law.

Denying Equal Protection Under the Law

Currently, neither federal nor Texas law protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination. That's why several cities in Texas — including Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Houston — have passed anti-discrimination ordinances that include protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public services. Opponents of these ordinances have argued that individuals and businesses should have the right to refuse service or otherwise discriminate based on their religious beliefs — and they are launching attacks, like the one in Houston, to roll back protections granted in the ordinances.

Permitting individuals and businesses a religious exemption to non-discrimination laws would threaten basic civil rights protections for everyone. For example, a business owner could cite his or her religious beliefs to discriminate against individuals of a different faith or interreligious couples. A manager whose religion teaches that women should not work outside the home or alongside men could claim a religious exemption to non-discrimination protections based on gender. Even some religious sects that promote white supremacy could seek exemptions from laws that bar discrimination based on race and ethnicity.

Denying the Freedom to Marry

Within days of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the freedom to marry for all loving couples nationwide, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a memo to all state agency directors directing them to “preserve” religious liberty, which is already protected by the U.S. Constitution. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a formal opinion suggesting that public officials may refuse, on religious grounds, to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Thankfully, most clerks in Texas’s 254 counties recognized the legal pitfalls of Paxton’s proposal, and today, only two counties — Loving and Irion — have not affirmed that they will follow the law. (And so far no same-sex couples in these two sparsely populated counties have sought such a license.)

Religious liberty is a fundamental right protected by the First Amendment, but that doesn’t mean government officials can use their personal religious beliefs to avoid following the law. Government officials who take an oath to uphold the law are required to treat all Texans equally, regardless of who they are or whom they love.