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Irene Monroe: Discrimination is not religious freedom

A movement is afoot in state legislatures across the country to disenfranchise LGBTQ Americans.

There are a surprisingly number of bills being introduced in state legislative session, which outrightly sanction and enforce LGBTQ discrimination. These bills are called “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” (RFRA), but don’t be fooled. These lawmakers are looking to codify LGBTQ discrimination.

This week the Georgia Senate, with a vote of 37-15, approved controversial RFRA (House Bill 1023). The bill doesn’t want the state’s Christian religious conservatives, fundamentalists and evangelicals to “substantially burden” their personal religious practices and beliefs.

What, you may ask, could possibly be such a burden to Christians in Georgia that a state law is necessitated?

Burden, according the bill, is defined as:

"'Burden' means any government action or implementation or application of any law, including, but not limited to, state and local laws, ordinances, rules, regulations, and policies, whether statutory or otherwise, that directly or indirectly constrains, inhibits, curtails, or denies the exercise of religion by any person or that directly or indirectly pressures any person to engage in any action contrary to that person's exercise of religion, including, but not limited to, withholding benefits, assessing criminal, civil, or administrative penalties, and exclusion from government programs or access to government facilities.”

But let’s be clear, the only religious folk lawmakers hope to protect from a “substantially burden” is Christians. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and other non-Christian Georgians don’t merit protection. As a matter-of-fact, these demographic groups — along with atheists and LGBTQs — can easily be subject to egregious forms of discrimination, bigotry and hate crimes under the guise of religion.

For example, the Atlanta-based family-owned fast food fried chicken chain Chick-fil-A can now with the state’s sanctioning of House Bill 1023 openly and legally discriminate in their hiring practices of Jews, divorcees or LGBTQ people based on their Southern Baptist beliefs.

In June 2012, controversy arose when it was disclosed that the company’s founder S. Truett Cathy and his family donated millions of dollars to groups across the country opposing same-sex marriage. S. Truett Cathy through The WinShape Foundation, the chain’s charitable organization, flatly barred same-sex couples from participating in the foundation’s marriage retreats.

“Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” like Georgia’s are springing up around the country. And the bogus claims look like this in justifying denying services to same-sex couples:

* A family-owned bakery in Gresham, Oregon called “Sweet Cakes by Melissa” wanted to “practice their Constitutional right to religious freedom.”

* A florist in Washington state wanted to maintain her “relationship with Jesus.”

* A photography company in New Mexico would “gladly serve gays and lesbians” by taking portraits. But photographing same-sex marriages or commitment ceremonies would “require them to create expression conveying messages that conflict with their religious beliefs.”

Sweet Cakes by Melissa owners closed the family shop and moved the business to their home making it clear LGBTQ dollars are not wanted.

“They don’t have a right to be served in every single store,” Oklahoma state Sen. Joseph Silk said, referring to gay people. “People need to have the ability to refuse service if it violates their religious convictions.”

While South Dakota’s and Arkansas’s RFRA failed to advance in their state’s legislative sessions, North Carolina’s and Alabama’s bill did. In same-sex marriage equality states (like North Carolina and Alabama), state judges and state employers like justices of the peace can refuse to officiate same-sex nuptials and private businesses can refuse services to same-sex couples citing it violates their religious belief.

The argument cited by religious conservatives for discrimination against LGBTQ Americans is not confined geographically. And the last place one expects not to see this type of discrimination rearing its head is liberal Massachusetts. But it has.

Gordon College, a small conservative Christian college on the North Shore, prides itself on upholding the tenets of religious freedom. And in so doing, the college tested its boundaries with the recent Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores.

The Hobby Lobby ruling last year allowed family-owned corporations to cite religious objections to opt out of the nation’s Affordable Care Act (ACA). ACA required employers to cover certain contraceptives for women. Gordon’s president D. Michael Lindsay — along with 14 influential religious leaders from across the country — asked President Barack Obama for an exemption banning discrimination in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation. (Immediately following the Hobby Lobby decision, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Wheaton College, another evangelical Christian liberal arts college outside of Chicago, a temporary injunction allowing the college to refuse providing contraception.)

Lindsay and his band of homophobes framed their request to the President, by email, c/o Melissa Rogers, executive director, White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, under the guise of "religious freedom."

This was hardly, though, the first time a Massachusetts school has tried to paint discrimination as religious freedom.

As recently as January 2014, the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) filed a complaint against Fontbonne Academy, a religious college prep school in Milton, Massachusetts, when the school fired Matt Barrett — after offering him employment at the school as food services director — when he stated on a form that his spouse was a male.

“If I’m planning and making meals for students, I’m not sure what my being gay has to do with the job,” Barrett said. “I’ve always done well in my work, and was excited about working at Fontbonne. All I did was fill out the form honestly.”

The Religious Freedom Restoration Acts springing up across the country are a backlash to the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage and the growing fear of when the U.S. Supreme Court legalize it nationwide. They are a perversion of the Constitution and our history of religious freedom.

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The Rev. Irene Monroe is a syndicated religion columnist who appears in SDGLN, The Huffington Post and other media. She was chosen in October 2009 by MSNBC as one of "10 black women you should know." Monroe has been profiled in O, The Oprah Magazine and in the Gay Pride episode of “In the Life" TV, a segment that was nominated for an educational Emmy. Several times she has received the Harvard University certificate of distinction in teaching. She is in the film, "For the Bible Tells Me So," and is profiled in "CRISIS: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing up Gay in America." Visit her website HERE.