How religious freedom’s PR crisis affects the Equality Act debate

A recent survey found that 44% of U.S. adults believe their rights are threatened by religious liberty claims

Amid growing calls to advance LGBTQ rights, conservative religious freedom advocates are scrambling to avoid potential fallout for people of faith.

In so doing, they’ve been forced to confront an uncomfortable truth: Many Americans see faith-based protections in the public square as a bad thing.

A recent survey from Public Religion Research Institute found that only 22% of U.S. adults support exempting business owners with religious objections to some LGBTQ rights from anti-discrimination rules.

Twice that many Americans (44%) feel their own rights are threatened by other people’s religious liberty claims.

It’s pretty clear that efforts to associate religious freedom with bigotry are working, said Josh Wester, chairman of research in Christian ethics for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“About five years ago, critics of religious protections rebranded religious liberty as a ‘license to discriminate.’ It was an effective PR move and it’s paid a lot of dividends,” he said.

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Now, Wester and others are looking to change the narrative once again.

“There is a version of religious freedom that is rooted in love of one another, not just a version that’s all about harm,” said Tyler Deaton, a senior adviser to the American Unity Fund, a conservative gay rights and religious freedom advocacy group.

By leading with love, religious leaders may be able to grow support for the protections they seek. The survey found that nearly 9 in 10 U.S. adults believe that people should be free to follow their religious beliefs and practices, so long as they don’t harm others.

Shifting public support

Deaton, who is gay, acknowledged that faith groups played a role in bringing about religious liberty’s current PR crisis. As support for gay rights grew in recent decades, some religious leaders vilified the gay community in hopes of protecting themselves.

For example, in the lead-up to gay marriage legalization, U.S. Catholic bishops often argued that same-sex relationships damaged society as a whole.

“There are people who have misused and misappropriated religious freedom to harm LGBTQ people,” Deaton said.

However, many of the people calling for additional religious freedom protections in legislation like the Equality Act or Fairness for All Act don’t deserve to be painted in that light, he said. There’s a difference between trying to leave room for some disagreement over marriage or sexuality and privileging religious concerns.

“I don’t want to live in a country where people feel ostracized for their views that are deeply held and very personal,” Deaton said.

If passed in its current form, the Equality Act could bring about such a fate, Wester said.

By limiting the application of existing religious freedom law, the bill would make it harder for faith-based schools, service organizations and businesses that object to LGBTQ rights on religious grounds to defend themselves against discrimination claims, he said.

Wester’s organization and other faith groups raised this concern before the House passed the bill on Feb. 25. But their calls for changes to the legislation mostly fell on deaf ears, likely because the threat of future lawsuits against churches doesn’t alarm people as much as the discrimination gay and transgender Americans are already experiencing today.

“This becomes a more compelling argument once it shifts from theoretical or hypothetical to real-world harm,” Wester said. “If you see Christian colleges shut down because of their refusal to” change their beliefs, “that’s likely to shift public opinion.”

He and other religious leaders would prefer not wait for that to happen to see a bump in support for religious freedom protections. So they’re looking for ways to speed up the process.

“It’s about trying to find a pathway forward where all of us can live together peacefully,” Wester said.

Image overhaul

That path will be hard to find, because it’s not just Democrats or atheists who worry about how religious freedom law is used today, according to Public Religion Research Institute’s recent survey.

The survey found that more than 4 in 10 Republicans (46%), Protestants of color (45%), white Americans (46%) and Hispanic Americans (41%) feel that their rights are being threatened by other people’s religious liberty claims.

In other words, the concern seemed to be present “across the board,” said Natalie Jackson, the organization’s director of research.

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To combat it, faith groups will have to abandon harsh statements about opponents made in years past and make it clear they’re not just worried about protecting themselves, Wester said.

In the context of the LGBTQ rights debate, that means religious leaders must condemn harm done to gay and transgender Americans even as they defend their own beliefs about sexuality and marriage, he said.

“Christians do not favor discrimination against LGBTQ people. It’s not as if we want to see them be treated badly,” Wester said. “The same faith that we’re seeking to protect tells us that all people are valuable.”

Similarly, Deaton said religious freedom’s reputation will improve as conservative religious groups place more emphasis on their support for LGBTQ rights.

He cited recent statements from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities on the Fairness for All Act as examples of how this can be done.

“They’re working to dissolve the idea that there is a wall between religious freedom and LGBTQ rights,” he said.

Religious freedom advocates should also make it clear that protections for religious organizations benefit more than just people of faith, Wester said. If faith-based humanitarian groups were forced to shut down, it would be much harder for the country to recover from natural disasters, economic downturns and other crises.

“One of the things I would like to see is people highlighting the tremendous amount of good work that religious organizations are doing, whether in the area of disaster relief or other humanitarian services,” he said.

In general, the country is stronger when people have the space to disagree, Deaton said.

“America was founded by people who had really serious religious disagreements and they managed to work it out,” he said. “We can still find ways to live in this huge country together and keep everybody safe.”