The Meaninglessness of Religious-Liberty Laws

(Mark Blinch / Reuters)
(Mark Blinch / Reuters)

Tennessee is just the latest state to pass legislation claiming to protect conservatives who object to LGBT relationships and identity.

An overwhelming three-fourths of Americans identify as religious. Listening to some religious conservatives in the U.S., though, one might think believers were a persecuted minority on the verge of extinction. In the name of protecting the sincerely held beliefs of religious Americans, conservative lawmakers and lobbyists have introduced a spate of controversial religious-freedom legislation in recent months. But apparently Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig aren’t the only ones fighting ghosts in 2016. The problems these bills claim to solve don’t actually exist.

In Tennessee, conservative legislators just passed a bill allowing counselors to refuse to provide mental-health services to patients if it would violate their “sincerely held religious belief,” which Governor Bill Haslam signed into law on Wednesday. The legislation was promoted by the Family Action Council of Tennessee, a conservative organization whose president once decried the American Psychiatry Association’s decision to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Opponents of the bill claim it allows discrimination against LGBT patients, particularly in rural areas where mental-health care is not widely accessible, but conservatives claim counselors’ freedom to live according to their convictions is at risk.

The bill is bold—it provides an explicit religious exemption for mental-health professionals who object to LGBT relationships and identity. But it’s unclear what has motivated it. In interviews, several Christian counselors across Tennessee and the heads of two national Christian counseling organizations said they didn’t know of any mental-health providers who felt their religious liberty was at stake.

“I do not personally know any counselor who will not see a gay person,” said Evon Flesberg, a pastoral therapist in Brentwood, Tennessee, and a counseling professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School. “I think this is the legislature trying to make a point rather than solve a problem.”

One reason for this is the industry’s practice of making referrals. Therapy-related religious-liberty challenges are rare, although one case recently came up in Michigan—Ward v. Polite. In it, a Christian counseling student named Julea Ward was expelled from Eastern Michigan University after she inquired about referring an LGBT patient who was seeking therapy regarding a same-sex relationship. The Sixth Circuit concluded Ward had been expelled due to “hostility toward her speech and faith.” According to the court, the American Counseling Association “does not prohibit values-based referrals like the one Ward requested.” Evidently, this is not the problem conservatives make it out to be.

This month, Tennessee conservatives also passed a bill that would make the Bible their official state book. Haslam vetoed the legislation because it “trivializes the Bible.” Lawmakers attempted to override the governor’s veto but failed. The purpose of a law is to protect citizens and solve social problems, but it is unclear how this bill would have achieved either of those goals. As conservative Christians decline as a share of the population, some feel the need to codify their religious beliefs into law as a last line of defense—this measure seems to be part of that phenomenon.

Tennessee is in good company with this kind of religion-related legislation. In February, Charlotte, North Carolina, passed an ordinance allowing transgender people to use public restrooms corresponding to their gender identity. The move infuriated conservative state legislators, who called the general assembly back to the capitol for a special session to overrule the Charlotte ordinance and prevent any local government in the state from passing its own non-discrimination measures. The controversial move made North Carolina the first state in America to legally require its residents to use bathrooms and locker rooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificates.

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SOURCE: The Atlantic
Jonathan Merritt

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