In the wake of last week’s Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case, concerns have been raised about broadening religious exemptions and their potential for being used as a justification for anti-LGBT discrimination.
In the 5-4 ruling, the Court determined that “closely held corporations” can be exempt from providing health care coverage for female employees’ contraceptives if doing so places a “significant burden” on the corporation’s religious freedoms, based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993.
Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a Republican, cited the Hobby Lobby decision as supporting his state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which mandates that “state action or an action by any person based on state action shall not burden a person’s right to the exercise of religion.” Mississippi’s RFRA is the kind of legislation that has many concerned about implications for the rights of the LGBT community. Its vaguely worded language has the potential to allow for discrimination of LGBT patrons by business owners if they feel doing business with them contradicts their religious beliefs.
Religious exemptions have been included in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a piece of legislation meant to protect LGBT rights in the workplace. ENDA was passed in the Senate with the support of several Republicans in its current form, but the inclusion of a religious exemption in the latest version of ENDA has drawn criticism by some LGBT advocates who argue that the language concerning religious freedom may allow for LGBT discrimination. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which has advocated for ENDA for the past two decades, rescinded its support for the legislation due to the inclusion of these exemptions. The National Gay and Lesbian Task force, along with other LGBT civil rights organizations, argue that religious institutions could be permitted to fire LGBT employees or discriminate in their company hiring practices based on the institution’s religious beliefs. Others argue that the religious exemption was an unavoidable compromise in order to gain bipartisan support that would not have been possible otherwise.
Religious exemption is now the topic of heated debate concerning an executive order, currently being drafted, which would protect LGBT employees of federal contractors from workplace discrimination. Religious leaders, including Rick Warren, the pastor who delivered the invocation at President Obama’s first inauguration, have asked the White House to include a religious exemption similar to the one in ENDA.
Some supporters of RFRA disagree that the act allows for discrimination, emphasizing the Hobby Lobby decision’s focus on contraception insurance coverage and the inclusion of a statement by Justice Samuel Alito condemning discrimination. “[The decision does not] provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice,” Alito wrote in his majority opinion. LGBT advocates also highlight this passage of the opinion, citing it as reason against passing state RFRAs that include sweeping religious exemptions.
While the Hobby Lobby decision does not directly pertain to LGBT discrimination, the concern that the precedent set may be opening the door to religious exemptions trumping the rights of other citizens, especially the LGBT community, is certainly not unwarranted.