“Tolerance is a two-way street.”
Sounds reasonable, right? The idea that two different groups with two different sets of beliefs can live peacefully side-by-side. But, here’s the thing. Agreeing to disagree about religious differences at the family dinner table is one thing. Using state legislation to revoke LGBTQ rights is another.
The movement of pushing “religious freedom” bills at the state level is travelling across the country, and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) warns this state-by-state legislation is going to target more specific areas, like housing and adoption. It’s also going to use phrases like “tolerance is a two-way street” to make discrimination sound more palatable.
Colorado got a taste of it last month, when a wide-sweeping “religious freedom” bill was debated, and voted down, in the state House Judiciary Committee.
“We are trying to strike a balance,” said Autumn Leva, the Director of Policy and Communication for the Family Policy Alliance, an arm of the Colorado-based Focus on the Family.
Every, single person who testified on behalf of the bill—from the massive religious organization to individual adoptive parents—repeated those two phrases during their testimony: “striking a balance” and “tolerance is a two-way street.”
“Live and let live. I’m concerned it will do the opposite,” said Leslie Herod (D-CO), Colorado’s first out, LGBTQ, African American representative. She was referencing the bill’s welcoming title: Live and Let Live.
Had the bill had passed, anyone could have denied services to members of the LGBTQ community if they were morally opposed to queer folks. That means employers could have denied jobs to or even fired people because of gender preference; restaurants could have refused service; landlords could have refused rentals; and, at the extreme, some health care providers could have turned away injured LGBTQ members.
“If I have a heart attack, where do I go without a doctor saying ‘sorry, I don’t treat people like you’?” asked Regina Kalacova, a 62-year-old, transgender Colorado native.
The HRC reported 129 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced across 30 states during the 2017 legislative season. Of those, 12 became law.
“If an LGBTQ couple drove from Maine to California today, their legal rights and civil rights protections could change more than 20 times at state borders and city lines,” said HRC President Chad Griffin.
The HRC predicts this type of legislation push will only increase this year. They are currently tracking more than 110 anti-LGBTQ bills. If the Colorado hearing is any indicator, the national movement is a well-oiled machine.
Line in the Sand
At least three attorneys testified on the Colorado bill’s behalf. Heavy hitters like Matt Sharp were brought in. He’s the senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian organization that’s been deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Its members have met with President Donald Trump. And Sharp has testified at a number of high-profile hearings, like one last month in California that tried to outlaw LGBTQ conversion therapy.
Dr. Jenna Ellis, an assistant professor of law at Colorado Christian College, told lawmakers same-gender marriage is not legal in the U.S. because it was not under the purview of the Supreme Court to rule on marriage. She testified the ruling is illegal and state laws still prevail.
“Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,” was how attorney John McHugh, president of Colorado’s LGBTQ Bar Association, described that line of thinking.
Colorado’s House Judiciary Committee is largely made up of minorities—minorities who remember when these same religious arguments were used against others.
“Religion was used to rid America of indigenous peoples,” said Representative Joe Salazar, (D-CO). He said he remembers signs in establishments banning “Mexicans and dogs” from entering.
Jovan Melton, an African American democrat who represents Aurora, said he recalls shops posting signs for “whites-only pies,” making reference to a lawsuit currently before the Supreme Court involving a gay couple in Colorado that was denied a wedding cake because of their sexuality. Melton asked, “What’s the difference between the whites-only pie then, and the straight cake of today?”
Charlie Craig and David Mullins are at the center of that lawsuit. Craig testified, “It doesn’t matter if it’s just a cake. To be turned away from anyone is humiliating. This measure isn’t freedom of religion, but rather freedom from LGBT people.”
The Supreme Court is expected to rule this summer on the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. It will determine whether business owners can choose not to serve LGBTQ patrons. Right now a Mississippi law that allows this type of discrimination is in full force after the Supreme Court refused to hear that case.
Representative Herod reminded those present that members of the KKK promote themselves as a Protestant organization. Furthermore, she said she doesn’t want to see Colorado go back to being called “the hate state,” like it was when the anti-LGB Amendment 2 passed in 1992. It was later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
Amendment 2 made it illegal for cities like Boulder and Denver to provide legal protections for members of the LGB community.
Jean Dubofsky, the first woman to become a Colorado Supreme Court Justice, successfully argued the lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court overturning Amendment 2. She said the Live and Let Live bill is similar in its breadth and is just as illegal.
“Moral conviction, as defined [in this legislation], applies to anyone who doesn’t like LGBT people,” she said.
Repercussions of Religious Freedom
Director of Public Affairs for Colorado’s Chamber of Commerce, Dorothy Ostrogorski, reminded the committee Colorado lost between $40-120 million from Amendment 2 boycotts. She said the current legislation would threaten incoming business or companies looking to expand.
“It sends the message ‘we don’t want you, we don’t need you,’” she said.
Ostrogorski warned similar legislation in Indiana and North Carolina led to large economic boycotts. Boycotts so big, Indiana had to back-peddle or risk losing multi-million dollar accounts.
Advocates for private Christian adoption agencies joined forces in Colorado to testify that pro-LGBTQ laws that went into effect in October of 2017 may result in shutting down agencies that refuse to send children to same-gender or transgender homes.
“For us it’s a ministry, not a business,” said Beth Woods, executive director of Hope’s Promise, a Christian adoption agency that believes children are best served in homes with one male and one female parent.
When questioned, other private adoption advocates said there have been no agencies forced to shut down since the laws have been in effect. But they said that may change with more stringent enforcement.
“Twelve hundred kids in foster care in Colorado need homes. Why would we deny them to be placed in a loving home?” asked representative Herod. She echoed sentiments expressed by Georgia state democrats who voted against a measure that passed last month in the Georgia Senate, which would allow adoption agencies to refuse to work with same-sex couples.
Last year, Georgia’s governor vetoed a more broad-reaching “religious freedom” bill after receiving significant pressure from corporate giants like Coca-Cola. Adoption is a “sector-specific” area the religious right is targeting because they see it as more likely to get approval than the more far-reaching bills that were mostly rejected last year.
Current federal laws do provide some religious exemptions. Clergy, for instance, cannot be forced to marry same-sex couples. Most LGBTQ activists are only pushing against laws that involve businesses who provide public services. Public businesses receive public tax benefits—tax benefits that are subsidized by everyone, including members of the LGBTQ community.
Religious Leaders Weigh In
Christians, Rabbis, and Sikhs all testified against the Colorado proposal.
Dr. Paula Williams is no longer allowed inside many of the mega-churches she used to preach in. She said when she came out as transgender it took only one week for her to lose all of her high-ranking positions within large churches and religious organizations.
Williams pointed to statistics from Pew Research Center that show a shift in theological thinking. More evangelicals, she said, are letting go of scripture interpretations that see homosexuality as a sin. She said if all scriptural beliefs were consistent, people who believe homosexuality is a sin would also believe, “In slavery, in banning interracial marriage, and that the earth does not revolve around the sun.”
Dilpreet Jammu is the chair of The Interfaith Alliance of Colorado. He is also the founder of Colorado Sikhs. He testified that the proposed bill is as dangerous now as similar legislation in the 60s.
“In 1965 [some people] found the Civil Rights Act to be in opposition of their sincerely-held religious beliefs,” he said.
The question of what constitutes “sincerely-held religious beliefs” and how a court is expected to define that was raised several times, but not definitively answered. This is an issue we can expect to see again and again as these “religious freedom” measures continue to be introduced around the country.
Dr. Evette Lutman is the Rabbi at B’nai Havurah in Denver. She testified that the Colorado bill’s name, Live and Let Live, “Seems like a hole so big you could drive a truck through it.”
Representative Salazar, who is running for Attorney General in Colorado, agreed the title was misleading—making a discriminatory bill sound welcoming instead.
“This bill will pass over my dead body,” he said. “I can’t believe we’re in 2018 and we still have to deal with this crap. And you can quote me that I said crap!”
Although the bill didn’t pass in Colorado this time around, attacks in the guise of religious freedom seem to be a growing threat in Trump’s America.