The Christian Right’s Favorite New Target: North Carolina Isn’t Alone

A slate of anti-LGBTQ laws and policies is sweeping across the country with transgender and gender-nonconforming people squarely in the crosshairs. While violence and oppression continue to wreak havoc on the lives and livelihoods of trans people, as of this writing at least 44 anti-trans bills have been proposed in 16 states this year, aimed at putting an already vulnerable community at even greater risk for harassment, abuse, ostracization, and discrimination.

But this attack isn’t restricted to the Bible Belt, nor is it limited to GOP-dominated cities and states. Trans people are being systematically targeted across the country as part of a nationally coordinated effort led by a coalition of Christian Right powerhouses – organizations that have been plotting this campaign since long before even the concept of a “post-marriage equality moment” existed.

Mickyel “Micky” Bradford, a regional organizer with the Transgender Law Center, protests HB2 outside of the governor's mansion. Image courtesy of Ryan Lavalley

Mickyel “Micky” Bradford, a regional organizer with the Transgender Law Center @ Southerners On New Ground (TLC@SONG), protests HB2 outside of the governor’s mansion. Image courtesy of Ryan Lavalley

Precariously situated at the end of the LGBT family, the “T” has often been neglected and/or forgotten by those on both the Right and the Left. Now, with the LGB portion of the queer umbrella experiencing increasing levels of legal acceptance, affirmation in the media, and economic access in the United States, the Right has cast their spotlight in the direction of those whom they’ve determined are still easily scapegoated; those who dare to continue resisting assimilation – trans and gender-nonconforming people.

Last week, North Carolina’s General Assembly approved a bill that was described by Sarah Preston, acting Executive Director of the ACLU of North Carolina, as “the most extreme anti-LGBT bill in the nation.” House Bill 2 (HB2) invalidates the recent expansion of nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ individuals in the City of Charlotte, and additionally prevents all municipalities in the state from adding any new protections for LGBTQ people.

HB2 was introduced and passed in the span of a single day during a special session called expressly for the purpose of eliminating Charlotte’s expanded nondiscrimination ordinance (costing taxpayers $42,000). The ordinance in question would have (among other things) granted the right to transgender individuals to use public facilities that correspond to the gender with which they identify. In other words, this straightforward civil rights measure would have allowed a trans man (or, more simply put, a man) to utilize a men’s bathroom, and a trans woman (a woman) to use bathrooms designated for women.

Despite the valiant resistance of organizers, activists, faith leaders, and families from across the state (and the fact that, to date, there have been no cases in which a trans person has committed assault in a bathroom), anti-trans fear mongering ruled the day, and within hours of passing both the House and Senate, HB2 was signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory, R, who previously stated that Charlotte’s nondiscrimination policy would “create major public safety issues by putting citizens in possible danger from deviant actions by individuals taking improper advantage of a bad policy.”

Gov. McCrory’s words speak to the effectiveness of the massive coalition of national players behind this devastating blow to LGBTQ people in the State of North Carolina. Over the last several years, right-wing opponents to social justice have steadily honed their anti-trans tactics and rhetoric, and now we’re seeing the effects of their well-resourced, diligent campaigning.

Today's anti-trans attacks echo the "save our children themes" from Anita Bryant in the 1970s.

Today’s anti-trans attacks echo the “save our children themes” from Anita Bryant in the 1970s.

Led by Christian Right powerhouses like the Alliance Defending Freedom, Focus on the Family, and Family Research Council, this coalition aims to scare communities into believing that women and girls are in grave danger as a result of comprehensive civil rights legislation by falsely painting transgender people as deviant, dangerous, and sick. (If this sounds eerily familiar, recall that less than 40 years ago, this exact same rhetoric was applied in anti-gay witch hunts such as Anita Bryant’s infamous “Save Our Children” campaign in 1977, which successfully repealed a county ordinance in Florida that prohibited discrimination against gay and lesbian citizens in employment, housing, and public accommodations.)

Indeed, McCrory’s comments echo both the historic vitriol of the Christian Right of yesteryear and the distorted, anti-trans language that Bryant’s contemporaries are currently propagating around the country. Notably, McCrory’s rhetoric matches that of a letter he received on March 2, 2016 from John Rustin, president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council (NCFPC), reacting to the passage of Charlotte’s trans-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance, demanding that the General Assembly call a special session to overturn it and “preempt any other municipality or county in the state from enacting a similar ordinance,” spoon-feeding McCrory the talking points needed to make it all happen.

SEE ALSO: When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right http://www.politicalresearch.org/2016/01/12/when-exemption-is-the-rule-the-religious-freedom-strategy-of-the-christian-right

SEE ALSO: When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right http://www.politicalresearch.org/2016/01/12/when-exemption-is-the-rule-the-religious-freedom-strategy-of-the-christian-right

It’s important to know that NCFPC isn’t just some obscure, local, “family values” operation. NCFPC is an affiliate of Focus on the Family’s policy arm, CitizenLink, a multi-million dollar operation that oversees a national network of 39 state-based “family policy councils” collectively committed to restricting access to abortion and reproductive justice, resisting efforts toward LGBTQ equality, and redefining religious freedom into a dangerous tool of oppression. In addition to providing strategic direction for its affiliates, CitizenLink also contributes financially. According to the most recently available IRS form 990s from both organizations, CitizenLink contributed nearly $170,000 to NCFPC in 2013, which amounts to over one third of NCFPC’s operating budget that year.

What’s also at play here is major backlash against the Obama administration’s expansion of Title IX protections in April 2014. Under the new guidelines, Title IX prohibits discrimination in publicly funded schools not only on the basis of sex, but also on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, and disability.

In a press release issued last Wednesday, ACLU-NC flagged this element of potential harm caused by HB2, noting that in addition to eliminating protections for LGBTQ people, the bill “jeopardizes the more than $4.5 billion in federal funding that North Carolina receives for secondary and post-secondary schools under Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination, including discrimination against transgender students.”

This isn’t new news to the U.S. Right.

According to a report from the Human Rights Campaign, within months of the 2014 change, dozens of religious colleges and universities had applied for and been granted a “religious exemption” from the law. While the exact nature of the relationship is unclear, at least four of the qualifying schools cc’d the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) on their exemption request letters.

Later that year, ADF—one of the Christian Right’s most powerful legal institutions, and a longtime partner of Focus on the Family and CitizenLink—would take on an even more prominent and aggressive role in the anti-trans Title IX pushback. In December 2014, ADF sent emails to public school districts nationwide encouraging use of their model “Student Physical Privacy Policy,” which provides guidelines for how schools can supposedly “protect” [cisgender] students in areas such as bathrooms and locker rooms. In reality, the model policy effectively encodes trans-exclusionary guidelines and subjects transgender students to further scrutinization, shame, and interrogation when it comes to their privacy.

SEE ALSO: Alliance Defending Freedom: The Right-Wing Lawyers Fueling Transphobia in Schools. http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/12/18/alliance-defending-freedom-the-right-wing-lawyers-fueling-transphobia-in-school/

SEE ALSO: Alliance Defending Freedom: The Right-Wing Lawyers Fueling Transphobia in Schools. http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/12/18/alliance-defending-freedom-the-right-wing-lawyers-fueling-transphobia-in-school/

What’s playing out on the ground in places like North Carolina, Tennessee, South Dakota, Washington State, and in school boards across the country isn’t some sort of isolated, homegrown scheme, and it isn’t the result of trans and gender-nonconforming people seeking to harm or threaten women and girls. These anti-trans bills are part of a nationally-coordinated, proactive campaign that seeks to deploy dangerous transphobic myths and rhetoric in order to mobilize conservatives and preserve a gender essentialist status quo that ultimately harms us all.

To join in the chorus of social justice advocates speaking out against HB2, please consider signing this petition from our friends at ACLU Action, calling on Gov. McCrory to repeal the law.

 

The Religious Right Operative Who Helped Write Utah’s Nondiscrimination Law

Was the non-discrimination/religious freedom law in Utah really the “historic compromise” it’s being touted as, or a Trojan Horse for the Religious Right’s agenda? There now seems to be little doubt with the discovery that one of the law’s authors has spent years working with the country’s most prominent Religious Right leaders and groups to advance right-to-discriminate laws across the country.

After my article last week asserted that the much-hailed Utah LGBTQ rights law was really an attempt by the national Religious Right to gain legitimacy for their agenda to redefine religious liberty as a religious license to legally discriminate, many have begun looking into how the bill actually came into existence.

As Queer Nation recently pointed out, Robin Fretwell Wilson, a law professor at the University of Illinois, has a long history of seeking to develop loopholes in civil rights laws. In 2014, as the proposed RFRA in Arizona was causing national headlines for its provisions allowing both private and government individuals to opt-out of civil rights and public accommodation laws if done so for religious beliefs, Wilson and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) teamed up to send a letter to Arizona Republican Governor Jan Brewer, claiming the law was being “egregiously misrepresented.” ADF (formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund back when it was working as part of the legal team defending California’s Prop 8, which stripped marriage rights from same-sex couples), was one of the authors of the Arizona bill. Following massive protests and national outcry, that bill was eventually vetoed by Governor Brewer, but less than a month later a nearly identical bill became law in Mississippi and ADF has worked to pass similar legislation in over a dozen states since.

Robin Fretwell Wilson

Robin Fretwell Wilson

In 2008, Wilson teamed up with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty—the group behind the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby case—to co-edit their book Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts, where she claimed states must proactively pass “conscience clauses” for religious freedom—the right for individuals, business owners, and government employees to use their religious opinions to legally discriminate against others.1

Wilson was more explicit in an op-ed to The New York Times, following the state legislature’s passage of same-sex marriage in 2011. “Without such [individual religious exemptions],” Wilson argues, “groups that hew to their religious beliefs about marriage would be at risk of losing government contracts and benefits and would be subject to lawsuits from private citizens.” She goes on to claim that organizations receiving government funding should never be in danger of losing those tax dollars just because they discriminate against LGBTQ people.

In 2010, Wilson authored a paper in the Northwestern Journal of Law & Social Policy titled Insubstantial Burdens: The Case for Government Employee Exemptions to Same-Sex Marriage Laws, in which she lamented that (at that point) “not a single state has shielded the government employee at the front line of same-sex marriage, such as the marriage registrar who, if she has a religious objection to same-sex marriage, will almost certainly face a test of conscience.” She concludes with what she believes to be a fair scenario: “Same-sex marriage applications comprise a miniscule part of the overall workload in the local marriage registrar’s office. If that office is staffed by three clerks, Faith, Hope, and Charity, and only Faith has a religious objection to assisting with same-sex marriage applications, allowing Faith to step aside when no hardship will result for same-sex couples is costless.” This, of course, ignores the vast implications of allowing a publicly-funded government employee to deny civil rights to citizens—not to mention the real threat of “Hope” and “Charity” following “Faith’s” lead. Wilson also took it a step further in her 2014 paper, Marriage of Necessity: Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty Protections, where she advocates for the Religious Right to focus on inserting its corrupted view of religious freedom into state laws.

Wilson is also famous for co-writing an op-ed in The Washington Post in 2014 with Bradford Wilcox, claiming that if women want to stop being sexually abused, they should just get married. Co-author Bradford Wilcox is currently the head of the Religious Right’s “National Marriage Project.” But until 2012 he was a director at the Witherspoon Institute, where he played an integral role in the creation of the thoroughly-debunked study by Mark Regnerus, which claimed that children of same-sex parents turn out much worse than children of opposite-sex parents. Wilcox not only acted as an advisor on the project, but was a paid consultant.

And speaking specifically about the Utah law she helped write, Wilson went so far as to lay out that “if the religious right does not believe that they are going to have those [religious exemption] protections, it cannot push forward the other rights.”

Wilson’s true motives in writing Utah’s “compromise” SB296 law are clear.

LGBTQ supporters of the law are arguing that the religious exemptions in SB296 do not undermine the workplace/housing protections for LGBTQ people. But that misses the entire point of the critique of the bill. It didn’t matter what legalese actually went into the law. In fact, it behooved Wilson, the Mormon Church, ADF, and the other Religious Right actors to make the bill appear favorable to LGBTQ people who desperately need workplace and housing protections.

No, the real agenda was to obtain the endorsement of LGBTQ groups. The Religious Freedom Restoration Acts currently being pushed through state legislatures, particularly in the South, are vulnerable to court challenges. But now that the Religious Right has high-profile endorsements of their false framework of religious freedom and LGBTQ rights being opposed to each other, unfortunately, the ability of LGBTQ activists and organizations to oppose RFRAs and other efforts to codify discrimination—all dressed up in the language of “religious freedom”—has been curtailed.

[1] Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2008.

Utah LGBTQ Rights Bill a Trojan Horse for Religious Right’s Agenda

There were both cheers and tears as many in the Utah LGBTQ community celebrated the passage of a workplace and housing nondiscrimination law in the conservative Utah legislature. But behind closed doors, I suspect it’s actually the leaders of the Religious Right who are cheering the hardest.

As someone who began as an activist in the Utah LGBTQ community, and fought for years alongside countless others for full workplace and housing protections, I was overjoyed at the possibility that 2015 might finally be the year we stepped closer to equality. Too many LGBTQ Utahns, myself included, have faced that discrimination firsthand. But once the legislation was unveiled, my heart sank. While there is much to be happy with in the legislation, and the protections it offers to some of the most vulnerable citizens in the Beehive State, the law also contains a tiny Trojan Horse individual religious exemptions clause.

The Utah bill is being called a “model” to be used in states around the nation, but we must be forewarned. The individual religious exemption in the law, as small and seemingly noninvasive as it is, could put the civil liberties of everyone at stake for decades to come.

Religious freedom is important, and as a principle has existed since before the writing of the U.S. Constitution. The 13 original colonies were a fractured bunch of near-theocracies, with various Christian sects dominating different colonies—to the detriment of anyone not a member of the particular sect in power locally. Thanks to the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the principle of religious freedom in the Constitution set in motion of the disestablishment of the state churches, and the advantages they held in the public sphere. Jefferson’s famous Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which predated the Constitution and was the first such law to be enacted in the world, said one’s beliefs or non-beliefs cannot “enhance, diminish, or impact” one’s “civil capacity.” Individuals were shielded from the tyranny of churches who had previously sought to force them to adhere to their beliefs, and religions were shielded from governments elevating one religion over another.

It has taken us a long time to make it work and, in truth, we are still working on it.

But the Religious Right has launched a campaign to redefine the meaning of religious liberty, stripping away those protections and once again giving religions the power to circumscribe the rights of individual conscience.

This coalition, led by right-wing groups such as Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly known as Alliance Defense Fund), the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and Liberty Counsel, is systematically working the courts and state legislatures to enact religious exemptions—essentially a right of religious institutions and individuals to decide which laws they will or will not follow.

In practical terms, this could play out as a business owner invoking faith to deny service to a LGBTQ couple, or refusing to hire Jewish employees. Or a man refusing to promote women to managerial positions because he doesn’t believe men should be subservient to women. We cannot allow such freedom of conscience to become a legal sanction for these and other forms of discrimination.

Mormon Apostle Dallin H. Oaks (right) receives the Becket Fund's "Canterbury Medal"

Mormon Apostle Dallin H. Oaks (right) receives the Becket Fund’s “Canterbury Medal”

One of the Religious Right leaders heavily involved in this campaign is Dallin H. Oaks, one of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ (Mormon) senior leaders and member of their Quorum of 12 Apostles. The Mormon church frequently finds itself at odds with members of other faiths who don’t believe it to be a true Christian religion. However, unlike some of his brethren in the all-male leadership, Oaks is deeply involved in the work with the Religious Right. He sits on the board of the international culture warring organization World Congress of Families. He received the 2013 “Canterbury Medal” for his “defense of religious liberty from the Becket Fund. In speeches before conservative groups, Oaks frequently extols the benefits of individuals being able to use their faith as an excuse to dodge pesky civil rights laws.

That’s why, when just a few weeks ago Oaks held a press conference to announce that he and the Mormon church were ready to endorse a statewide nondiscrimination law for LGBTQ people if only the leaders of the local LGBTQ community would sit down and negotiate a “compromise,” many were suspicious.

Oaks was up front about what he was looking for. He and other leaders of the Mormon church enumerated the religious exemptions they wanted included with a nondiscrimination law, including a right for government and health care workers to deny service to LGBTQ people.

SB296, the bill that resulted from those negotiations, was hailed by equality groups and the Mormon church as a “historic compromise” of nondiscrimination and religious freedom. The bill does indeed ban workplace and housing discrimination against LGBTQ people in Utah. But buried underneath those important protections, is a small clause guaranteeing the right of individuals to express faith-based anti-LGBTQ views at work.

It’s a small exemption. Seemingly inconsequential in comparison to the benefits the new law could bring. Viewed purely as a standalone piece of legislation, SB296 does a lot more good than bad and it’s unsurprising to see so many social justice-minded people supporting it.

But the equality movement cannot survive if we view legislation through a short-term and narrow lens. To do so is to ignore the context of the long-term consequences of the Religious Right’s national agenda—which only needs to get a foot in the door to get the ball rolling.

Oaks’ goal with the nondiscrimination law was not to pass full individual religious exemptions all at once. To use the analogy of the unfortunate amphibian, the frog will jump out of the pot if put directly into boiling water. But turn the heat up slowly, and the frog cooked to death. For the LGBTQ community to endorse the Religious Right’s corrupt redefined version of religious freedom, even in this one seemingly minor way, opens the door for the expansion of religious exemptions in both breadth and number.

And as if to confirm this suspicion as quickly as possible, within two hours of the “compromise” SB296 passing the Utah legislature, conservatives in the Utah House of Representatives had also passed two other bills that had not been part of the negotiations: one granting county clerks the right to refuse to perform any marriage they opposed on religious grounds, and the other paving the way for full individual religious exemptions in the public marketplace.

It’s a victory for the Right not only in the success of imposing their agenda into law, but in winning the larger PR battle at a critical moment in time.

As I discussed in Resisting the Rainbow: Right-Wing Responses to LGBTQ Gains, the Mormon church has only ever given in to pressure by the LGBTQ community when its back is against the wall in a public relations battle. After months of heavy protesting over their involvement in California’s Prop 8, they endorsed a municipal nondiscrimination law in Salt Lake City in 2009. In 2010, after 2nd-in-command Mormon leader Boyd K. Packer claimed that there was no way God would allow people to be born gay, protests around the church’s headquarters garnered international attention and prompted Packer’s comments to be officially stricken from the church’s records.

So why did the Mormon church unexpectedly come to the table? Could it be a delayed response to their highly-publicized excommunication of faithful feminist members for asking for a public discussion about why the patriarchal church does not allow female leadership? Unlikely, that was months ago and the discussion has largely died down.

A more plausible explanation is the forthcoming World Congress of Families (WCF) event scheduled for Salt Lake City in October. The international coalition of U.S. culture warriors held a conference last year in Moscow—their name was removed just before the conference started to prevent negative publicity over the situation in Ukraine—where attendees unanimously voted to urge their home countries—like the United States—to pass laws modeled on the Russian anti-LGBTQ law. (That law criminalizes any positive speech about LGBTQ people under the guise of protecting children from “propaganda.”)

WCF attendees and other U.S. conservatives, such as Rick Warren, Sharon Slater, Brian Brown and others, are known around the world for their work in exporting the culture wars abroad, which has resulted in outcomes like the “kill the gays” bill in Uganda.

Dallin H. Oaks is a member of the WCF board of directors.

Thanks to Oaks’ work in helping to pass the “compromise” legislation, the WCF and the Religious Right’s goal of codifying their redefined version of religious freedom into law has taken a giant step forward. Once Pandora’s Box is opened, there’s no shutting it.