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During LGBTQ rights town hall, top Democrats call for limits on religious freedom

Top Democratic candidates fail to address concerns of religious conservatives during LGBTQ rights town hall on CNN

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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks as CNN moderator Chris Cuomo listens during an LGBTQ-focused town hall on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in Los Angeles.

Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Soon after Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, took the stage Thursday night during a Democratic presidential town hall on LGBTQ rights, she had a chance to address conflict between religion and gay rights head on.

An audience member asked her what she’d say to someone who believes marriage is meant to be between one man and one woman. Rather than call for empathy or explore her more liberal religious beliefs, she played the moment for laughs.

“I’m going to say, ‘Then just marry one woman. I’m cool with that,’” she said, adding that such a man may not be able to find a wife.

Warren wasn’t the only Democratic presidential candidate to treat religious concerns about expanding LGBTQ rights like a joke or an applause line during the town hall, which was co-hosted by CNN and the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ rights advocacy group.

Instead of highlighting opportunities for compromise, participants expressed frustration with conservative people of faith and called for limits on religious freedom protections.

“I cannot allow, as a leader, that people are going to use religion as a justification of discrimination,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey.

When religion is used to harm the LGBTQ community, “it makes God smaller,” said Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. “It’s an insult to faith.”

Beto O’Rourke went so far as to say churches should lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage.

“There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for any institution or organization in America that denies the full human rights and full civil rights of every single one of us,” he said.

In many cases, the candidates drew on their own religious beliefs to justify these positions. For example, Booker repeatedly referenced Christianity’s call to love one’s neighbor and seek justice, arguing that his faith requires him to advocate for better treatment of the LGBTQ community.

“My faith, as well as my American values, will make me fight on every front to make sure that people are not discriminating against someone because of who they are,” Booker said.

But punishing conservative people of faith for their beliefs about marriage or gender identity is a form of discriminating against someone because of who they are, religious freedom advocates said. Democratic presidential candidates are failing to acknowledge this double standard or address the concerns of religious individuals and organizations.

“If one of these candidates has the burden of governing this whole diverse, complex country, I would hope they wouldn’t be as flippant as they’re being during this campaign so far when it comes to that real stake that religious freedom has in these conversations,” said Michael Wear, chief strategist for the And Campaign, a Christian organization that advocates for civic education and is rooted in the black church.

Thursday night, common ground between religious conservatives and the LGBTQ community seemed like a foreign concept. Democratic presidential candidates repeatedly argued that religious freedom protections were never meant to excuse harm done to one’s neighbor.

“Religious liberty is an important principle in this country and we honor that. But it’s also the case that any freedom we honor in this country has limits when it comes to harming other people,” Buttigieg said.

However, he and other candidates have not spelled out specific limits, Wear said, which amplifies the fears of conservative people of faith. Many leaders of religiously affiliated schools, faith-based adoption agencies and even churches worry that they’ll soon be run out of the public square or lose access to the government funding that supports their social service programs.

“Do we really want to shut down an entire part of the education sector or social services sector? I would hope the answer would be no,” said Wear, who is the author of “Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America.”

The Constitution calls on the government to protect the free exercise of religion, which doesn’t include singling out conservative religious communities for poor treatment, religious freedom advocates said.

“Stripping tax-exempt status from religious groups, solely because of their religious belief in traditional marriage, would be a major attack on #ReligiousFreedom,” tweeted Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, during the town hall. 

For the most part, Democratic candidates are refusing to look for ways to protect conservative people of faith and the LGBTQ community at the same time, Wear said. They likely don’t need to in order to court Democratic voters, according to PRRI, a research firm focused on religion and politics.

Nearly three-quarters of Democrats (73%) oppose allowing small business owners to refuse to serve gay or lesbian people for religious reasons, and 69% oppose allowing faith-based adoption agencies to refuse to work with same-sex couples, PRRI reported this summer.

However, Democrats would have a better chance of winning the White House in 2020 if they tried to reach out to people of faith who care about strong religious freedom protections, Wear said. With their current approach, Democrats are playing into the Republican Party’s hands.

“Because (Democrats) aren’t addressing religious freedom in any kind of substantive way, it gives (President Donald) Trump ... free run to claim Democrats are going to shut down churches,” he said.

In general, it’s unreasonable for the Democratic presidential candidates to act as if it’s possible to pass legislation expanding the rights of the LGBTQ community in the near future without first engaging with conservative people of faith, Wear said.

“You don’t pass LGBT protections in the short-term or medium-term with the approach to religious freedom that they’re taking,” he said.

Passing such protections is exactly what the candidates have promised to do. During the town hall, they highlighted their support for the Equality Act, an effort to add sexual orientation and gender identity-based protections to federal civil rights laws. Many said they’d make the legislation, which passed the House of Representatives in May, a top priority if they were elected.

“We urgently need an Equality Act,” Buttigieg, the Democratic Party’s first openly gay presidential candidate, said. “I will fight for that and sign it the moment that it hits my desk.”

These promises, like their other comments on religious freedom, expose the candidates’ misunderstanding of or disregard for many conservative people of faith and the potential consequences — intended or otherwise — of the Equality Act, Wear and others said.

Even religious groups that support expanding LGBTQ rights protections have expressed concerns about the Equality Act, arguing that it would lead to more lawsuits against faith-based organizations and make it harder for these groups to defend themselves in court.

“If passed as currently drafted, the Equality Act would devastate the core ministries of a wide range of religious groups,” argued a letter to Congress from a diverse coalition of religious leaders.

“While providing extremely broad protections for LGBT rights, the Equality Act provides no protections for religious freedom,” wrote leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a May statement.

The Democratic presidential candidates will need to engage with these concerns eventually if they want to find a way to bring people together instead of encouraging division, Wear said.

Their current rhetoric “harms the legislative and policy efforts that they claim to be so focused on,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly reported that 69% of Democrats oppose allowing faith-based adoption agencies to work with same-sex couples. Instead, that’s the percentage of Democrats who oppose allowing faith-based adoption agencies to turn same-sex couples away.