Conscience Clause Expansion Would Permit Harassment of LGBTQ Servicemembers

Representative Fleming (R-LA)

Representative Fleming (R-LA) who recently proposed an expanded “conscience provision”

Should military personnel have a license to discriminate? Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) thinks so.

As part of the Fiscal Year 2014 Defense Authorization Act, Fleming recently proposed an expansion to an existing “conscience provision.” Rep. Fleming argues that this expansion would allow all military service members to freely express and act in accordance with their moral beliefs. Commanding officers would only be allowed to intervene when there is an apparent threat of “actual harm.”

This expansion would essentially enable any servicemember to harass an LGBTQ colleague without repercussion, simply by claiming it is in accordance with their religious convictions. While the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) allows LGBTQ individuals to serve openly, this “license to discriminate” could force LGBTQ servicemembers back into the closet to avoid hate speech, discrimination, and other forms of mistreatment.

A statement from the White House condemned the deeply troubling implications of the amendment, stating: “By limiting the discretion of commanders to address potentially problematic speech and actions within their units, this provision would have a significant adverse effect on good order, discipline, morale, and mission accomplishment.”

Representative Fleming’s “conscience provision” is part of a long-standing right-wing agenda manipulating “religious liberty” arguments to justify discrimination. During the 1960s, those who opposed the gains made during the Civil Rights movement claimed that integration was against their religion in order to deny African-Americans equal access to services and interracial couples the right to marry.  The LGBTQ community is now confronting similar attacks in the workplace, and the “conscience provision” is advanced to legally sanction harassment within institutions like the military and public education.

In schools, the right-wing attempts to dismantle anti-bullying policies, particularly policies put in place to protect LGBTQ students. Their reasoning is that “special protections” for gay students will encourage discussion about sexual identity and indoctrinate students with the homosexual agenda. The Christian Right fears that policies put in place to protect LGBTQ students will impose on their rights to express and act on their religious beliefs and will undermine traditional family values.

Religious liberty is a respected civil right. Manipulating the concept to deny others’ civil rights and protections is unconscionable. Yet with the pending Supreme Court decision to uphold or repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the reintroduction of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), we can expect to see continued examples of the “redefining religious liberty” strategy on the Right.

To learn more about PRA’s research on religious liberty, read Jay Michaelson’s report Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights.