Owen Stecco: LGBTQ+ discrimination as religious freedom

Tuesday, March 17, 2020 - 2:28pm

Fresh off the departure of former Mayor of South Bend, IN, Pete Buttigieg from the presidential pursuit, many have claimed he bridged the gap between religion and the LGBTQ+ community. But it’s quite the opposite. As someone from the religious Western part of Michigan, the church I was raised in began denying communion to its LGBTQ+ members this last holiday season. The move ostracized me and several other community members from an already unwelcoming environment, as the primary push against the LGBTQ+ equality movement has originated from religious organizations and institutions. While Buttigieg has benefited from his membership in the church, many in the LGBTQ+ community have found historic oppression and ostracization from the religious right. 

While not every religious person and institution uses their power and faith to oppress the LGBTQ+ community, recent discrimination has been masked by religious freedom and restoration laws. States across the country have used the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to push discriminatory agendas by allowing businesses, providers and employers to deny services to LGBTQ+ individuals by claiming religious exemptions, as seen in Texas. Recently, Tennessee passed a law allowing adoption agencies to deny service to LGBTQ+ couples, citing claims of religious freedom. Laws like these across the country allow for open discrimination and perpetuate the second-class status of LGBTQ+ individuals, justified by quotes from scripture.

The Supreme Court furthered this divide between LGBTQ+ individuals and religious institutions in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, wherein a Christian-family-owned business won the right to not include contraceptive methods in their employee's health care plans, despite it being required in employee health care plans by the Affordable Care Act. This opened up the floodgates for discrimination by allowing companies to exercise religious objections.

This precedent was furthered in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, where the court sided with a religious baker who refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple. The Supreme Court, primarily seen as the champion of the unprotected minority, has frequently ruled in favor of religious freedom over the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans, allowing for open discrimination and anti-LGBTQ+ biases. 

While the courts and lawmakers deny LGBTQ+ individuals basic rights and services by siding with religious institutions, youth are directly impacted. LGBTQ+-identifying individuals make up an alarming 40 percent of the youth homeless population. Nearly seven in 10 LGBTQ+ homeless youth cite family rejection as the main cause for this. That same rejection that I felt from my childhood church is felt across the country as LGBTQ+ youth must grapple with the realities of their identities all while institutions intended to be safe and welcoming are given free reign to turn away and discriminate. 

Further, communities of faith and religious leaders frequently serve as role models and support systems for young people, but that is often not an option for LGBTQ+ youth. In a country where LGBTQ+ high schoolers attempt suicide at four and a half times the rate of their straight peers, clergy leaders could serve as an outlet of support for youth. In addition, transgender-identifying individuals attempt suicide at nine times the rate of the United States population and are seldom welcome or embraced in religious institutions. Frequently, transgender support is found in groups that are not religiously affiliated, atheist or agnostic, furthering the rift between religious groups and the community.

As religious institutions have pushed against the LGBTQ+ community and been plagued by controversy, there have been steep declines in religious affiliation and confidence in organized religion. Today, 74 percent of Americans are no longer confident in organized religion and 36 percent of millennials do not identify with a religion, marking drastic dips among more open-minded and younger generations. This drive away from organized religion can be explained by multiple factors but marks a pivot away from oppressive institutions to a focus on faith, individualism and empathy. Religious institutions must evolve to reflect the public shift in sentiment towards the LGBTQ+ community in order to retain their spot in American life.

While I have no doubt that the majority of individuals practice religion to find community and direction, the institutions and texts have been used as a mode of discrimination. Those in power and those seeking to put down marginalized groups have historically abused religious teachings to contradict the purposes for which they were created, to love and accept all people. The shift from acceptance to oppression has taken form in religious freedom laws that give license to discriminate based on homophobic and transphobic prejudices. The conversation of religious freedom must shift to one of equality and expose the series of laws and practices put in place to oppress and perpetuate the second-class status of LGBTQ+ individuals across the nation.

Owen Stecco can be reached at ostecco@umich.edu.