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LGBTI people in the US want equality, but religious exemptions don't allow it

Lawmakers are using religion to discriminate

LGBTI people in the US want equality, but religious exemptions don't allow it
Religion is being used as a discriminatory tool. | Photo: Flickr/Ted Eytan

Dave Garcia, Director of Policy and Community Building at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, recently said religious exemptions are the ‘greatest threat’ to the LGBTI community in the US.

A new report from the Human Rights Watch details the dangers of these laws.

‘All We Want is Equality’: Religious Exemptions and Discrimination against LGBT People in the United States is the 41-page report.

HRW conducted the research between August 2017 and January 2018. During this time, eight states had statewide exemptions harming LGBTI people: Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

They also interviewed 112 LGBT people, service providers, and advocates in these states.

Meanwhile, only 19 states and the District of Columbia explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexuality and gender identities.

The purpose of the report is to show ‘how religiously motivated discrimination against LGBT people can inflict real harm and why state endorsement of this discrimination is dangerous’.

How it affects people

HRW’s findings argue that lawmakers began leaning on religious exemption bills once LGBTI people in the US began gaining more rights. Specifically, after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, lawmakers opposed to it began introducing these bills.

The most comprehensive is Mississippi’s House Bill 1523. Legislators enacted the bill in the first legislative session following Obergefell.

It specifies three protected religious beliefs, including that marriage ‘should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman’. The other beliefs are that sex is reserved for such a marriage, and that gender is defined by a person’s ‘biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth’.

The bill also stops the government from taking ‘any discriminatory action’ against religious organizations who discriminate against LGBTI people.

The report also addresses matters like adoption and healthcare. In 2016, Tennessee passed a law stating therapists don’t need to counsel in ways conflicting with their religious beliefs.

‘I don’t know who else would want to treat you’

In 2012, Leiana C., a 39-year-old lesbian woman and her wife searched for a fertility doctor in Mississippi.

While on the phone with the receptionist, Leiana mentioned her wife would be coming with her.

‘Oh, well he’s not going to see you, he only treats married couples,’ the receptionist said before the call ended.

Leiana called back to clarify. A different receptionist answered and explained the doctor ‘only treats straight married couples’ because of his religious beliefs. ‘He doesn’t treat single women either,’ she added.

When Leiana asked for a referral, the woman replied: ‘I really don’t know who else would want to treat you.’

They gave up for more than a year until another doctor was recommended to them. Now they’re expecting their second child.

A misleading attack

Ryan Thoreson, a researcher in the LGBT rights program at HRW said calling the laws ‘religious exemptions’ is ‘misleading’.

‘Given the dearth of laws that protect LGBT people from discrimination in the first place, legislators are getting it exactly backwards and creating exceptions before they’ve ever established the rule.’

Religious exemptions have been a staple in the Donald Trump administration’s stance towards LGBTI people, including in Supreme Court cases and healthcare.

Ultimately, HRW recommends state legislatures repeal these laws and Congress various equality acts.

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