Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Religious Freedom or Right to Discriminate?

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

LGBT advocates say the U.S. Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling has encouraged states to expand so-called religious exemption laws. Credit: Skeeze/Pixabay.
LGBT advocates say the U.S. Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling has encouraged states to expand so-called religious exemption laws. Credit: Skeeze/Pixabay.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Pennsylvania's Religious Freedom Protection Act has been used since 2002 to protect an individual's right to practice their religion, but a new report says laws being introduced around the country may be used to legitimize discrimination.

The report from the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) found that in this year alone, bills creating religious exemptions to state laws have been introduced in 17 legislatures.

Report author Ineke Moshovic, MAP executive director, says the bills are reactions to same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act – but they don't stop there.

"The legal precedents that are being set have the ability to impact access to health care for all Americans, child welfare, child safety," she says. "It's really opening a huge can of worms."

Mushovic says the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling allowing a private employer to claim a religious exemption, rather than provide insurance coverage for birth control under the Affordable Care Act, has prompted some states to expand their definition of religious freedom.

At the ACLU of Pennsylvania, deputy legal director Mary Catherine Roper says the Keystone State law has only been used to protect people's ability to practice their religion.

"I am not aware of any instance in which the Act has been used to protect a right to discriminate against people," she says. "It's just not what our law is there for, or has been used for."

Roper says Pennsylvania has a proud tradition of protecting people's religious freedom – but she adds there's a "big difference" between practicing religion and imposing religious beliefs on others.

"When you open yourself to serving the public, you have to serve all of the public," she says. "When you're talking about public services, then the right to be free from discrimination is paramount."

Roper notes a bill to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity has just been introduced in the state Legislature, with broad support.

Mushovic cautions that lawsuits claiming religious exemptions to laws similar to the Religious Freedom Protection Act are now cropping up in other states.

"We think this is just the tip of the iceberg," she says. "Just because we haven't seen this type of litigation right now in Pennsylvania doesn't mean we won't see it."

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