Discriminatory religious freedom state laws fail to protect LGBT community

The year 2015 marks a momentous time for the LGBT community and its allies. Thirty-seven states have legalized same-sex marriage, a law banning “therapy” that claims to convert queer-identified individuals into heterosexuals appears to be in the works and LGBT characters are slowly gaining representation in the media. As a nation, we have come a long way in supporting gender and sexual minorities, but recent legal events show how far we still need to go.

The uproar began when a “religious freedom” bill allowing businesses to refuse service to LGBT people on the grounds of religious beliefs became law in Indiana. A similar law was passed in Arkansas, with another on the way in Louisiana. Then another setback occurred in southern Missouri: voters in the state’s third largest city, Springfield, repealed an ordinance adding sexual orientation and gender identity to categories protected from housing and employment discrimination. These pitfalls are especially disheartening and frustrating in a time of such progress.

It is important to acknowledge that the religious freedom laws are not direct attacks against LGBT people. The bills do not say, “And you can totally refuse to serve gay people.” Instead, they give business owners who refuse service to anybody a way to avoid being sued by allowing them to claim they are religiously “burdened.” However, conservative Christian groups are indeed using the bill to further such discrimination. When a new case of a gay person or couple being refused service pops up nearly every week, it is hard to deny that these laws provide a gateway for discrimination. Meanwhile, there is nothing other than a negative connotation behind the events in Springfield: LGBT residents have lost their legally-deserved protections.

“But LGBT people don’t need protection,” some will say. “It is the business owners who need protection. After all, look at the bakery owners and photographers who are insulted and sued for refusing service.”

Sure, but it is a business’ choice to deny service. Bakeries and photographers and such have the power in this scenario. If they wish to refuse doing business with a segment of the population, so be it. By this time they are aware of the potential consequences and open themselves up to lawsuits and media firestorms. Businesses do not need a law protecting them from the results of their active decision to discriminate. What about the people being discriminated against, who are denied service for being themselves? To me, these attempts to embarrass LGBT people and take away their legal protections show how badly such legal protections are needed in the United States.

This claim is not made in an attempt to bully business owners and religious organizations. It is simply a conclusion based on information, like the fact that less than half of states prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and less than 20 prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. Twenty-one have statewide laws banning housing discrimination, and those same states have laws protecting the LGBT community from refusal of service by businesses. Most shocking, 19 states don’t include sexual orientation and/or gender identity in their laws addressing hate crime.

Numbers do not lie. The truth is that most states have no laws or very few laws protecting their LGBT residents. The recent events resulting in removal of existing protections for LGBT Springfield residents and creation of a legal basis for discrimination in Indiana, Arkansas and Louisiana show that laws are necessary to protect LGBT people in this nation. Does the majority really need protection from the minority? That is not equal treatment; that is oppression.

We as Americans are granted the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Laws like these are not designed to help anyone pursue their own happiness – these laws are meant to actively take away somebody else’s. It is not okay to discriminate, and current legal events are disturbing in their willingness to further the agenda of prejudice. LGBT people are not scary or gross; they just want to buy a cake or keep a job. It is time to enact legal protections for protection against discrimination – preferably protections that are not later repealed.

Audrey Walker ’18 walker1@stolaf.edu is from Mountain Grove, Missouri. Their major is undecided.