Tag Archives: LGBT Rights

Same-Sex Marriage and Our New Religious Politics


Photo from Wikimedia

In the last week, two interesting polls have appeared, one from the Associated Press and the other from the Washington Post, on Americans’ reactions to the Supreme Court’s June ruling in the same-sex marriage case, Obergefell v. Hodges. Taken together, the polls reveal that America is more divided on the question than first appeared. And the polls reflect an unfortunate, new religious dimension in American politics.

Notwithstanding the widespread acclaim for the decision in the days following Obergefell, it turns out that many Americans do not favor making same-sex marriage a constitutional right. In the AP poll, only 39% said they approved of the Court’s ruling, while 41% said they disapproved. In the Washington Post poll, a bare majority, 52%, said they approved the Court’s decision, while 44% disapproved. These results are much closer than one would have expected, given the immediate media reaction to the ruling.

Now, the fact that many Americans disapprove of the Court’s decision doesn’t mean the decision is wrong. Constitutional law doesn’t turn on opinion polls. (As it happens, I think the Court’s opinion is wrong as a constitutional matter, for reasons I explain here). And one must be careful about reading too much into polls, especially polls that follow an unusual recent event. In time, public opinion may settle in favor of the Court’s decision, especially given the fact that younger Americans apparently support same-sex marriage in significant numbers. Besides, people could disapprove of the Court’s decision for reasons that do not directly relate to the merits. Americans are generally in a bad mood about the state of our country these days, and the polls may simply reflect that dissatisfaction.

All that said, these polls seem significant to me, for three reasons. First, they demonstrate that opposition to the Court’s decision is not a fringe phenomenon. Forty-four percent of the country is not an insignificant group. Dissenters may be reticent about expressing their opinion publicly—or, indeed, to pollsters, which suggests the percentage of opponents may be even higher—but they are not a trivial proportion of the population. America is apparently still divided on the question of same-sex marriage, and this division will doubtless make itself apparent in our politics. More on this below.

Second, the results hint that some people who oppose the Court’s decision may do so out of concern for religious freedom. In the AP poll, for example, 56% said that religious liberty should take precedence over gay rights, the implication being that people anticipate a conflict between the two. They should. At oral argument in Obergefell, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli himself acknowledged the potential for conflict, on questions like tax exemptions for religiously-affiliated institutions that oppose same-sex marriage.

Finally, there is an unmistakable partisan divide. In the AP poll, a large majority of Democrats gave priority to gay rights, while a large majority of Republicans said religious freedom is more important. The extent of the divide is truly startling. “By a 64-32 margin, most Democrats said it’s more important to protect gay rights than religious liberties when the two are in conflict,” the AP reports. “Republicans said the opposite, by 82-17.”

This polarization is worrisome. Up till now, America has been spared the bitterness of religious politics. Unlike some countries in Europe, we have not had clerical and anti-clerical parties. True, particular religious groups have gravitated toward one or another political party. In New England, for example, Irish Catholics were historically Democrats and mainline Protestants Republicans, a conflict memorialized in films like John Ford’s The Last Hurrah.

But we have never had secular and religious parties as such. Both parties saw religion, in general, as a good thing, and religious liberty as a fundamental American value. Tocqueville noticed this and found it refreshing. “In the United States,” he observed, “if a politician attacks a sect, this may not prevent the partisans of that very sect from supporting him; but if he attacks all the sects together, everyone abandons him, and he remains alone.”

Perhaps the political consensus on the value of religion is breaking down. More and more, one of our two major political parties is identifying itself as secular, and the other as religious. That’s not to say that all Democrats are secularists and all Republicans religious believers—of course not. Just ask the folks at Secular Right. And people could value religious freedom but believe other interests outweigh it in particular cases. Still, there seems a clear trend: religious freedom is becoming a partisan issue. That’s a very bad thing for America. You might even say it’s un-American. Let’s hope the trend doesn’t continue.

White, “Reforming Sodom”

In August, the University of North Carolina Press will release “Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights,” by Heather R. White (University of Puget Sound). The publisher’s description follows:

With a focus on mainline Protestants and gay rights activists in the twentieth century, Heather R. White challenges the usual picture of perennial adversaries with a new narrative about America’s religious and sexual past. White argues that today’s antigay Christian traditions originated in the 1920s when a group of liberal Protestants began to incorporate psychiatry and psychotherapy into Christian teaching. A new therapeutic orthodoxy, influenced by modern medicine, celebrated heterosexuality as God-given and advocated a compassionate “cure” for homosexuality.

White traces the unanticipated consequences as the therapeutic model, gaining popularity after World War II, spurred mainline church leaders to take a critical stance toward rampant antihomosexual discrimination. By the 1960s, a vanguard of clergy began to advocate for homosexual rights. White highlights the continued importance of this religious support to the consolidating gay and lesbian movement. However, the ultimate irony of the therapeutic orthodoxy’s legacy was its adoption, beginning in the 1970s, by the Christian Right, which embraced it as an age-old tradition to which Americans should return. On a broader level, White challenges the assumed secularization narrative in LGBT progress by recovering the forgotten history of liberal Protestants’ role on both sides of the debates over orthodoxy and sexual identity.

Ironies in Indiana

Some readers have asked me what I think about the Indiana RFRA controversy, as an academic who studies law and religion. To my mind, opponents of the law have succeeded in creating a false sense of crisis about the evil this allegedly unprecedented law would unleash in America. In this, they have been greatly assisted by the media’s framing of the issue and and by the support of corporate titans like Apple and Walmart, which have decided to intervene in the dispute–incidentally proving, as Justice Alito argued in Hobby Lobby, that for-profit corporations sometimes do express goals other than merely making money.

In addition, it seems to me that the controversy contains three very significant ironies, two for the law’s opponents and one for its supporters.

First, notwithstanding opponents’ efforts to portray the Indiana statute as an innovation, the balancing test it establishes is nothing new. The test, which holds that government cannot impose substantial burdens on citizens’ religious exercise without showing a compelling need to do so, and without choosing the least-restrictive means for doing so, was American constitutional law for decades, until the Supreme Court jettisoned it for most purposes in 1990. It is the test embodied in the federal version of RFRA, enacted without opposition more than 20 years ago; in the many state versions of RFRA; and in the constitutional law of many other states. Indeed, according to scholars Cole Durham and Brett Scharffs, the compelling-interest test is the majority rule in the United States today. It’s true that there are a couple of differences in the Indiana law, but those differences are pretty minor, and anyway the debate has not focused on them.

Even more: something like the compelling-interest test is the rule in liberal societies around the world. The European Convention on Human Rights, for example, provides that a member state can interfere with citizens’ exercise of religion only where the state shows that the interference is “necessary” to achieve an important interest. Many countries have similar balancing tests, including Canada, Israel, and South Africa. From a global perspective, there is nothing unusual about the Indiana statute.

Second, the Indiana statute leaves ultimate determinations to the courts. It does not, as some of its opponents  misleadingly claim, legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians. In the unlikely event that an Indiana business refused, in violation of any applicable anti-discrimination laws, to serve gay people, and claimed a religious justification for doing so (how many such businesses are there, anyway?), the case would proceed to litigation, in which a court would determine (1) whether requiring a business to serve gay customers is, genuinely,  a substantial burden on its religious exercise; (2) if so, whether the state’s interest in preventing discrimination against gays is compelling; and (3) whether there is some way other than requiring the business to serve gay customers that could advance that interest equally as well. I wouldn’t bet on the business’s chances in such a lawsuit. Given the great success supporters of gay rights have had in American courts in recent years, it is ironic that they would lose faith in the courts now.

And this leads to the third irony, one for the statute’s supporters. Some supporters evidently are confident the Indiana statute would allow a business to refuse, on religious grounds, to participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies—caterers and photographers, for example.  (This is not the same thing as refusing generally to serve gays and lesbians, incidentally, and it is not helpful to conflate the two situations). That’s why they are fighting so hard for the law. But it is not at all clear they are correct. Whatever one thinks about the merits of a religious exemption in these circumstances, it is uncertain that a court would actually rule in favor of the business. Maybe the business would prevail in a RFRA lawsuit, maybe not.

On the basis of distortions, mistakes, and uncertain predictions, we seem ready to abandon a foundational principle that exists, not only in American law, but in legal systems across the world. The New York Times refers, without irony, to “so-called religious freedom laws.” On Morning Joe this week, Mika Brzezinski suggested that stopping the Indiana statute would not be enough; it’s time, she hinted, to revisit the federal RFRA itself.  We seem ready, in other words, to take courts out of the business of protecting religious minorities. Does that seem a good idea?

What’s Happening in Houston?

When I first saw the story, I dismissed it as a hoax. The City of Houston had served subpoenas on local pastors who had participated in a petition drive against a city ordinance, known as HERO, which prohibits discrimination against LGBT persons. The subpoenas demanded that the pastors turn over “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”

What could justify such an intrusive request? Not only the pastors’ own statements – that would be troubling enough – but statements the pastors had revised, or approved, or just kept in their possession, about homosexuality and gender identity. And about the mayor herself. There must be more to the story, I thought.

It turns out there is a bit more to the story— but the episode is nonetheless very unsettling. When the city rejected the petition on the ground that the signatures were invalid, some opponents of HERO – not the pastors themselves – challenged the city’s decision in court. The city issued the subpoenas in connection with that litigation. The theory, as I understand it, is that because these pastors helped organize the petition drive and hosted meetings, the pastors’s statements about the petition are important. I guess the idea is that the pastors may have said something that induced phony signatures.

Now, given the rules of pretrial discovery, one must concede that there is some plausibility in the city’s argument – some. In an American lawsuit, attorneys can ask for all sorts of information before trial, even if that information is not strictly relevant to the litigation, as long as the information seems reasonably likely to lead to relevant and admissible evidence. This broad standard is meant to allow parties to uncover all the facts. So when the city says it would like to know what the pastors may have said about the petition drive itself, that’s not a completely untenable position, given the freewheeling rules of American pretrial litigation.

But there are other very important considerations. The broad standard for discovery can lead to so-called “fishing expeditions” that seek to harass and intimidate litigants and encourage them to back off. As a result, courts generally have wide discretion to reject requests for information that are overly broad and unduly burdensome to the opposing party. In a context like this one, which raises very sensitive First Amendment concerns, courts must be especially careful.

The pastors have moved to quash the subpoenas. They should and will likely succeed, largely if not completely. Indeed, in response to complaints, including from some defenders of LGBT rights, Mayor Parker and the Houston City Attorney have already indicated that they think the subpoenas are too broad and should be rewritten. (They blame the misunderstanding on pro-bono attorneys the city retained to handle the litigation.) Maybe the court will allow subpoenas with respect to statements directly related to the petition drive, but that’s as far as it’s likely to go. I wonder if the court will allow even that.

Still, even if these pastors succeed in resisting the subpoenas, significant damage has been done. It’s hard to see how this episode will not chill religious and political expression. Most people, quite rationally, want nothing to do with lawsuits and subpoenas. They don’t want to make legal history. The lesson they will draw from the episode is this: if you want to avoid trouble, don’t make politically-charged statements about religious convictions that the government doesn’t approve, even if you’re at a private meeting in your own church. In fact, don’t revise or retain such statements. Otherwise, who knows? You may one day have to lawyer up.

European Court’s Judgment in UK Religious Freedom Cases: A First Read

Today, a chamber of the European Court of Human Rights announced its decision in the highly-anticipated Eweida and Others v. United Kingdom, a group of four consolidated cases brought by British Christians who alleged that the UK had violated their religious freedom under the European Convention on Human Rights. From the claimants’ perspective, the outcome was, at best, mixed: the chamber ruled in favor of only one of the four claimants. With respect to the other three, the chamber accepted the government’s argument that important countervailing interests, including the protection of gay rights, outweighed concerns about religious freedom.

The claimants alleged that their employers had violated their religious freedom by disciplining them for manifesting their Christian beliefs. Nadia Eweida, a British Airways employee, and Shirley Chaplain, a hospital nurse, complained that their employers had forbidden them from wearing cross necklaces at work. Lillian Ladele, a public registrar, lost her job when she declined, out of religious conviction, to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies for same-sex couples. Gary McFarlane, a psychotherapist, was fired by a sex counseling service because of his objections to providing sexual advice to same-sex couples. British courts had ruled against all four claimants, who then applied to the European Court for relief.

I won’t get into the details of the analysis here, but, briefly, the European Convention provides that individuals have the right to manifest their religious beliefs, but that governments may limit that right if necessary to protect important countervailing interests, such as public health and “the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” With respect to the first two claimants, the chamber held that Continue reading

“Common Sense, Not Discrimination”

That’s the verdict of the Student Judiciary at the State University of New York at Buffalo, which has reinstated the local chapter of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship as a campus student organization. Earlier this year, the Student Senate had revoked recognition because of Intervarsity’s requirement that leaders in the organization affirm traditional Christian beliefs, including beliefs about homosexuality. Last December, the chapter’s  treasurer, who is gay, told the university’s student newspaper that he had been pressured to resign because he would not sign a statement affirming the truth of Biblical passages, including passages condemning homosexual conduct. The Senate believed this episode showed that Intervarsity violated the university’s non-discrimination policy, but the Judiciary disagreed, arguing that one must distinguish between membership and leadership in a student organization. Intervarsity was open to all SUNY-Buffalo students, including gay students, the Judiciary explained; but  “it is common sense, not discrimination, for a religious group to want its leaders to agree with its core beliefs.” Similar disputes about the religious freedom of student groups have occurred recently at other American universities, including Vanderbilt, and of course, UC-Hastings Law School, the subject of the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in CLS v. MartinezMartinez held that an “all-comers” policy requiring student religious organizations to open their leadership to all students regardless of belief is constitutionally permissible. That’s not to say an all-comers policy is constitutionally required, however.

Chick-fil-A and the Coming Clash

That was fast. Last week, Mayor Thomas Menino announced that, because of COO Dan Cathy’s comments in favor of traditional marriage, Boston would not allow Chick-fil-A to open any restaurants in that city. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel followed with similar statements. “Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values,” he declared. The response from commentators on both the left and right was uniform and swift. Government cannot deny licenses because businesses express political opinions with which government disagrees: that’s what the Free Speech Clause is about. By this week, Menino had backed down, and New York’s Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a supporter of same-sex marriage, had distanced his city from the anti-Chick-fil-A campaign. The crusade to shut down Chick-fil-A seems to have ended, at least for now.

Consumers have every right to organize a boycott because they disapprove of what a firm’s COO has to say. Such boycotts typically fail, however, because of collective action problems. It’s hard to organize these things; most consumers simply don’t care enough about politics to have it drive their purchasing decisions. In the 1990s, conservatives failed when they tried to boycott Disney because of its support for gay rights, and liberals failed when they tried to Continue reading

Tuck on LGBT Equality

Ryan Tuck has posted Parting the Red Sea: The Religious Case for LGBT Equality, on SSRN. The abstract follows.

Much of the LGBT legal equality movement has focused on non-religious arguments. While that has netted gains in a purely legal sense, the broader – and more desirable – goal of social equality will remain elusive if the LGBT movement does not turn the religious argument around. In other words, LGBT proponents need to understand how to utilize religion to forward their causes, rather than ignore how opponents use it on the other side.