Everything You Need to Know About the Ugly “Religious Freedom” Laws Sweeping the Nation

Love may have won, but homophobia is still alive and well in the U.S. Ever since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage last summer, conservatives across the nation have scrambled to pass more and more state laws that aim to protect, they say, “religious freedom” or “religious liberty.” Yet these laws are specifically concerned with one form of so-called “freedom”: the right of homophobic individuals and businesses to deny goods, services and humanity to members of the LGBTQ community.

Around three-dozen states have drafted a total of almost 200 anti-LGBTQ bills this legislative year alone, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Luckily, big business is taking notice of this discriminatory legislation—and keeping some of these bills from actually becoming law.

The most recent wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation kicked off in North Carolina about three weeks ago, when state lawmakers convened a special session to debate a city ordinance that had recently passed in Charlotte. What made this ordinance so dangerous that lawmakers felt that combatting it was worth costing taxpayers $42,000 for the session? It allowed transgender people to use the bathrooms that match their self-identified gender—so a trans woman, for example, could use the women’s bathroom.

North Carolina’s largely Republican General Assembly quickly passed House Bill 2, or the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, which invalidated the ordinance by decreeing that everyone (including transgender and gender-fluid people) must use the public restrooms that match the biological sex indicated on their birth certificate. It also banned local governments from passing similar ordinances. Furthermore, this act revoked North Carolinians’ right to sue under a state anti-discrimination law. In other words, if you lose your job due to your gender, race or religion, seeking legal help just got a whole lot harder.

The backlash against North Carolina has been swift. Citing the law’s blatantly discriminatory practices, PayPal canceled plans to create 400 jobs and invest $3.6 million in the state, while Google Ventures, Apple, Facebook and Bank of America—North Carolina’s largest corporation—have pledged to hold off on making new investments there. Artists like Ringo Star and Bruce Springsteen have cancelled their North Carolina concerts. Even the state Attorney General’s office refused to defend the law, calling it “unconstitutional.”

Gov. Pat McCrory (R) issued an executive order to supposedly “clarify” the law in the face of “a great deal of misinformation, misinterpretation, confusion, a lot of passion and frankly, selective outrage and hypocrisy,” as he said in a video address Tuesday. But while he announced his intention to “seek legislation” to help North Carolina citizens regain the right to sue for discrimination in state courts, he didn’t touch House Bill 2’s bathroom provisions.

Seven other states are currently considering legislation similar to North Carolina’s.

Despite North Carolina’s cautionary tale, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) signed into law the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act on April 7. This law allows businesses to refuse services to gay couples on religious grounds. Specifically, it defends three key religious beliefs: first, that marriage “should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman”; second, that sex is “properly reserved” until marriage; and third, that individuals’ genders are “objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.” So not only is the law homophobic, but it piles on slut-shaming and transphobia for good measure.

While the economic damage to Mississippi has so far not been as devastating as the damage to North Carolina, IBM released a statement saying it was “disappointed that Governor Bryant has signed H.B. [House Bill] 1523 into law.” Member companies of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association—including Nissan and Toyota—have also voiced their disapproval of the bill. Only time will tell just how much money Mississippi stands to lose.

But there’s still hope on the horizon, since some states have already scrapped similar bills under pressure from businesses. Georgia’s recent brush with religious liberty legislation is a too-rare success story: Gov. Nathan Deal (R) vetoed a bill that would have let religious leaders opt out of performing same-sex marriages and religious organizations refuse to let “objectionable” events take place in their facilities. (Translation: no same-sex marriage ceremonies.) The bill would have also allowed these organizations to hire or fire people based on whether or not their religious leanings and lifestyles aligned with those of the organization.

While Deal said he vetoed the bill, named House Bill 757, on March 28 due its anti-gay discrimination, pressure from Hollywood and the NFL surely played a role. Companies such as Disney, Time Warner and Viacom threatened to halt productions in the state, which trails behind only California and New York in TV and movie production. Meanwhile, a statement by the NFL suggested that it would refuse to host a Super Bowl in Georgia if the bill passed.

“NFL policies…prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard,” the statement read. “Whether the laws and regulations of a state and local community are consistent with these policies would be one of many factors NFL owners may use to evaluate potential Super Bowl host sites.” And if the NFL, an organization riddled with cover-ups of domestic abuse and dangerous concussions, calls something “improper,” then it probably is.

However, this is far from the end of the fight against “religious liberty” laws, both in Georgia and across the United States. As the religious right gains strength, it’s up to individuals, not just corporations, to fight discrimination against LGBTQ peoples. “We’ll have to be even more vigilant and proactive than ever,” Robbie Medwed, of the Sotuhern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity, told The Atlantic Journal-Constitution. “Discrimination is already happening in Georgia. And we’re going to see this bill again next session—there’s no question about that.”

Photo via American Life League on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0





Carter Sherman is a former Ms. editorial intern. She recently graduated from Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and international studies, and has previously interned at Elle and Los Angeles Magazine. Follow her on Instagram at @heyyymizcarter.