Roy Harrison: 'Religious freedom' issue being used to protect discrimination

July 8, 2014 

Roy Harrison is chair of Lexington Fairness, an LGBT rights organization.

By Roy Harrison

This week marks the 15th anniversary of Lexington's Fairness Ordinance.

The passage of this law — which prohibits discrimination in housing, services and employment against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community — was a pivotal moment in Lexington's history.

Debate was heated. Council members received explicit challenges to their safety.

The proposition that extending full civil protections to the LGBT community, as had been done for the African- American community and other minorities, instigated visceral reactions among many.

It was argued that to be gay was sinful, to protect lesbians was the extension of "special rights" and to invite all in the LGBT community to contribute to the development of Lexington was to weaken the moral and social fabric of our families and neighborhoods.

But the arguments have been proven baseless. Lexington is a stronger place — morally, ethically and economically — as a direct result of passage of a law that made one simple promise: equal treatment.

Since then, Lexington's churches and houses of worship increasingly welcome LGBT congregants. Children innocently wonder why their gay and lesbian neighbors cannot get married. Businesses have relocated to or expanded in Lexington specifically because of our decisions to court the best and brightest, no matter their sexuality.

Still, there are threats to the law.

Nationally and throughout the state, opponents of fairness have manipulated the public dialogue with the deceptive cry of "religious freedom." In 2013, opportunism and cowardice aligned with the legislature's override of Gov. Steve Beshear's veto of House Bill 279. This bill made state and local laws — including civil-rights protections for women, racial minorities and the LGBT community — optional for those with "sincerely held" religious beliefs against adhering to such a law.

Nineteen other states have passed similar laws, and last week's Supreme Court ruling in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby hinged on a federal version of the law.

Additionally, Danville's passage this summer of an anti-LGBT discrimination law specifically made exemptions for organizations like Sunrise Children Services. Though churches historically have been afforded exemptions, the Sunrise exemption was a remarkable expansion of the religious-freedom argument.

This is dangerous. "Religious freedom" as an escape hatch on civil-rights protections contradicts the formula of acceptance that has made Lexington so successful. By enabling individuals to opt out of laws, we do not protect religious freedom — we establish protected discrimination. We say that we place a higher value on favoritism than we do fair play. We weaken our communities. Religious freedom arguments have been made to defend paying women less than men, denying interracial marriage, or firing women pregnant out of wedlock. We should not validate these actions.

As anyone in the LGBT community can attest, anti-gay discrimination in Kentucky unfortunately remains. Without fairness protections, the ability to contribute fully and engage with our neighbors — buy a house, hold a job, eat at a restaurant — will be infringed.

No one wants to compel a church to change its doctrines, and churches are sufficiently protected against that specter. Religious freedom, as guaranteed in the Constitution, is intended to be a shield. Instead, as construed today, it has become a bludgeon.

Fifteen years ago, Lexington decided to invest in fairness and acceptance. Today we are a leader in Kentucky and the South, as we live off that decision's dividends. Fairness has worked for Lexington, and we should be steadfast in opposition to attempts to weaken our commitment to it.

Roy Harrison is chair of Lexington Fairness, an LGBT rights organization.

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