Summary: In the coming years, LGBTQIA+ individuals are likely to face increasing
discrimination through religious exemption laws at both the state and federal level. As a
result of these laws, many may find themselves unable to receive government benefits
or medical treatment, as well as subject to housing and employment discrimination.
In general, religious exemption laws allow individuals, organizations and businesses to
exempt themselves from laws in instances where following the law would go against
their religious beliefs. Examples include provisions for conscientious objectors or for
parents who do not wish to vaccinate their children based on religious beliefs. In the
aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision on marriage equality, conservative
legislators are increasingly proposing laws that would chip away at protections for
LGBTQIA+ folks on the grounds of “religious freedom.”
A few examples:
● In Virginia, HB 2025 would have permitted adoption agencies and homeless
shelters to discriminate based on “a sincerely held religious belief or moral
conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and
one woman,” according to the language of the bill
(https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?171+sum+HB2025S). The Human
Rights Campaign states that this bill “could allow taxpayer-funded organizations
like homeless shelters and adoption agencies to refuse service to same-sex
couples, transgender people, and anyone suspected of having intimate
relationships outside of a heterosexual marriage (such as single mothers or a
cohabiting straight couple) without losing taxpayer funding, contracts, licensing,
or other forms of state recognition”
o-discriminate-bill). For example, many homeless shelters in Staunton,
Harrisonburg and Roanoke are run by religious organizations. If the bill were to
become a law, they could turn away individuals based on their sexual orientation
and/or gender identity. This is particularly insidious because LGBTQIA+ youth
are at a particularly high risk for homelessness due to family rejection (an
estimated 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQIA+).
○ This bill passed through the VA House of Delegates and the Senate on
February 20. Senator Deeds voted against this bill. Delegate Cline voted
for this bill. Governor McAuliffe has said he will veto the bill.
● In 2016, the Mississippi legislature passed HB 1523, which, according to the
Washington Post, “sought to protect Mississippians who had three specific
religious beliefs: that marriage is between only one man and one woman, that
sex is reserved for heterosexual married couples and that gender is determined
at birth” On this basis, same-sex couples could be refused marriage licenses and
LGBTQIA+ individuals (or single mothers) could be fired or denied medical
○ As US District Judge put an injunction on this bill.
● In 2015, Republicans in Congress first proposed the “First Amendment Defense
Act” (FADA). According to the provisions of the bill, “the Federal Government
shall not take any discriminatory action against a person, wholly or partially on
the basis that such person believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief
or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one
man and one woman, or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a
marriage.” (See http://equalitymatters.org/factcheck/201507280001) Were FADA
to become law, it would allow federal contractors or organizations that received
federal funding (such as homeless shelters and drug treatment agencies) to
discriminate against LGBTQIA+ individuals (or even unmarried heterosexual
couples). Government employees could also refuse services to LGBTQIA+ folks,
such as by denying them Social Security or Medicaid/Medicare benefits.
Additionally, employers could prevent LGBTQIA+ individuals from taking time off
of work to care for a spouse under the Family Medical Leave Act.
○ Representative Goodlatte was one of the sponsors of this bill in 2015. It
has yet to be proposed in 2017, but it may well be. During the campaign,
President Trump indicated that he would sign the bill.
If the fate of Mississippi’s HB 1523 is any guide, religious exemption laws will face
considerable challenges in courts. The presiding judge found that it violated the
Fourteenth Amendment by denying equal rights to all citizens and the Constitution’s
Establishment Clause by favoring certain religious beliefs over others.
Many states have passed laws that protect the rights of LGBTQIA+ individuals, but even
those are often challenged in the courts by people who claim the laws infringe on their
religious beliefs. Fighting lawsuits that attack civil rights laws is an ongoing struggle in
the judicial branch that occurs concurrently with the debate over religious exemptions in
our national and state legislatures. Although many courts have ruled in favor of civil
rights laws, such challenges to LGBTQIA+ rights are still a legitimate concern.
● In Washington, a florist filed a lawsuit that claimed the state’s anti-discrimination
laws infringed on her religious beliefs. The conflict arose when she refused
service to a gay couple who wanted to buy flowers for their wedding. The issue of
flowers may seem less serious than many of the other challenges faced by
LGBTQIA+ individuals, but, as the Washington State Supreme Court stated after
ruling in favor of the couple, the matter “is no more about access to flowers than
civil rights cases in the 1960s were about access to sandwiches.”