Can Religious Exemptions Trump Public Accommodations Laws?

Dianne Post, Secular AZ Legal DirectorCan Religious Exemptions Trump Public Accommodations Laws?

On April 12, 2019, a man in west Phoenix, Arizona, shot and killed his wife and two children. Then he drove to another location and shot and killed a man there. When the police stopped him, he said that he had a sincerely held religious belief that in his church, not only would this behavior be all right, it would be mandated by God because he thought his wife was having an affair with the other man.

This is where we are going with this movement to justify a religious exemption to public accommodations laws. And it is a movement. It is an attempt to change this democracy into a theocracy. As the court said in Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers, it is not about cakes or flowers any more than the sit-ins in the south in the 1960s were about sandwiches and soda. This is about equality and fairness.  This movement is a betrayal of American values and the Constitution.

An Attempt to Change Democracy into Theocracy

The underlying movement here is to create a religious exemption to public accommodations laws. We’ve seen this attack across the country in a variety of public services. To create such an exemption would take us back to the 1950s, when hotels, restaurants, department stores, hospitals, etc. could refuse to serve Black people, when Blacks and whites couldn’t inter-marry, when women couldn’t get birth control.

The Bible was the justification for the separation of the races as it is today, for the attack on the LGBT community, and attacks on women’s health care.  Slavery was once justified by religion. Banning of Muslims is justified by religion. These are facts, not “hostility to religion.”

These ideas are not just limited to the LGBT community. A woman in South Carolina wanted to be a foster mother and passed all the checks.  She was denied the ability at the last question. Why?

Because she was the wrong religion: Catholic. The appeals court in that case rejected the discrimination asserting that, “religious belief will not excuse compliance with general civil rights laws.” The government may not grant special religious exceptions from a law when it would cause harm to others. For more, read Maddonna v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (on appeal).

Over the objection of an Orthodox Jewish community, a court in New Jersey in A Country Place v. Curto et al ruled that the swimming pool regulations that determined that women and men had to swim at different times — and then gave all the best and most times to men — was discrimination against women and could not stand.

Using Religion to Deny Medical Care

Even more dangerous is using religion to refuse medical care and treatment to women.

The federal Department of Health, under the current administration, has devised a new religious rule that will endanger millions of woman. Under the rule, health care workers can refuse to treat patients under the guise of religious freedom.

Such rules already exist, so long as the patient is given notice and options. This rule would increase the people and organizations to which it applies, and would cover additional things such as payments, grants, contract, and insurance. All a person or organization has to do is claim a religious justification and they can discriminate at will.   

Ambulance drivers could refuse to drive a person to the hospital. ER rooms could refuse to give the morning after pill to a rape or incest victim. A nurse could refuse to put in an IV for a person with AIDS. A clerk could refuse to sign in a Muslim or an atheist.  The staff could refuse to adhere to patients’ end-o-life decisions. Three separate federal courts have enjoined this rule.

None of this is new. Blacks were denied admission into white hospitals at one time, and often died before reaching a Black hospital. A woman in Sierra Vista, AZ who was having a miscarriage was denied services at a Catholic hospital so had to be driven another hour to Tucson. Such discrimination was wrong before.  It’s wrong now.

Majority of People Oppose Religiously Based Service Refusals

A recent public opinion poll by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that:

  • 69% of Americans favor laws that would protect LGBT people from discrimination in jobs, public accommodations, and housing. That has held steady for eight years.
  • Nondiscrimination protections for LGBT Americans enjoy bipartisan support, with majorities of Democrats (79%), independents (70%), and Republicans (56%) reporting that they favor laws that would shield LGBT people from various kinds of discrimination.
  • Solid majorities of all major religious groups in the U.S. support laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and the workplace.
  • While white evangelical Protestants (54%) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (53%) are least likely to support LGBT nondiscrimination protections, even among these groups support remains in the majority.

Further, in 2018, 57% of Americans opposed allowing a small business owner in their state to refuse products or services to gay or lesbian people if providing them would violate their religious beliefs. Only 36% of Americans support such a policy.

Majorities of Americans of all racial and ethnic groups oppose religiously based service refusals. Black Americans (66%) are most likely to oppose allowing small business owners to refuse service to gay and lesbian people based on their religious beliefs.

The next highest group that opposed such discrimination was Hispanic Americans (60%), Asian-Pacific Islander Americans (59%), people who are mixed race or another race (58%), white Americans (54%), and Native Americans (52%).

Majorities of most major religious groups oppose religiously based service refusals, including: 

  • 83% of Unitarian Universalists
  • 69% of Americans who identify with New Age religions
  • 68% of Jews
  • 66% of Black Protestants, Buddhists and the religiously unaffiliated
  • 61% of Hispanic Catholics
  • 60% of Muslims and Hindus
  • 59% of other non-white Catholics,
  • 57% of Americans who identify with other religions,
  • 55% of white Catholics
  • 54% of white mainline Protestants
  • 53% of Orthodox Christians
  • 52% of Hispanic Protestants

What’s really happening here is an effort to give special privileges to a narrow segment of society while stigmatizing other groups and refusing them equal protection under the law. It’s based on the patriarchal underpinnings of religion and the fear of losing power.

We should reject it from the root to the branch. You know what you have to do: VOTE.

– Dianne Post, Legal Director