Efforts to Roll Back LGBT Progress Continue in ‘Religious Liberty’ Bills

Marriage equality and other major cultural breakthroughs have been a significant human rights accomplishment of recent years, but there are constant attempts to use flimsy "religious liberty" arguments to roll those advances back. Matthew Snider notes one such effort in this year's Maryland General Assembly session.

/By Matthew Snider/ Various forms of “religious liberty” bills have been filed around the country – many going overlooked, while others have gained considerable notoriety after the Supreme Court’s decision last year guaranteeing a right to marriage equality. Despite the fact that Maryland was one of the few states to legalize same-sex marriage legislatively, efforts continue to roll back the progress made in this area of LGBT rights.

This session, Del. Richard Metzgar (R-Baltimore County) filed Maryland H.B. 16 which ostensibly aims to shield religious actors from liability for refusing to “solemnize or officiate” marriage rites which violate the rules or customs of their particular religion. The bill’s purpose, according to Metzgar, is “protecting the pastors,” but its language is much broader and is written in the kind of startlingly imprecise language that is only the product of shortsighted fear-mongering.

Apart from the commonsense notion that pastors, rabbis, priests and other religious leaders shouldn’t be strong-armed into “marrying” a couple whose union they don’t approve of (who would be looking for a judgmental, disapproving minister to officiate their wedding anyway?), the bill sweeps wide and sets out to “protect” from discrimination other discriminating actors. It shields employees of religious organizations, non-profits, societies, and associations from liability if they refuse to perform their job in service to a marriage they disagree with.

The language is sloppy and careless—what other kinds of marriages than same-sex ones might “violate the entity’s religious beliefs”? A concrete, timeless definition of “religious beliefs” is naturally an amorphous and elusive thing—they change and vary across sects, denominations and individuals, and get at the very heart of what each of us believes about this life and any subsequent one. The US Constitution rightfully recognizes that the government has no business probing too deeply into that sphere. But how long ago was it that religion might have been appealed to in order to oppose interracial marriages? Have the scriptures changed to which those individuals and entities would have pointed to support their deeply-held beliefs? No—which only reinforces the tendency of “religious beliefs” to change over time. Is it so improbable that certain religious entities and actors out there might find room in this new law to exercise their opposition to inter-religious marriages, marriages by divorcees, or others?

The Supreme Court has often recognized that “political questions” are beyond its capability to adjudicate—they have no guidelines or institutional mechanisms to settle questions of politics. In the First Amendment, the Framers similarly recognized that governmental exploration and legislation of “religious beliefs” is nearly impossible—and inappropriate. The First Amendment protects individuals’ right to pursue their religious beliefs largely free of government heavy-handedness; and “religious liberty” proponents know that their model bills and legislation are duplicative. So why the sudden influx of bills seeking to “protect the pastors”? Because it sends a message—that despite the declaration by the US Supreme Court, support by a sitting US President, and increasing popular support across political lines, opponents of LGBT rights remain waiting and watchful for every opportunity they can exploit and roll back 40+ years of progress.