Religious Freedom and the Christian Right’s Masterpiece of Manipulation

Photo: United States Supreme Court. Joe Ravi/Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout history, people have used religion to justify a myriad of injustices. In the United States, for example, some Christians used their faith to defend slavery and segregation, citing scriptural references as moral justification for the dehumanization and genocide of Black and indigenous people until, ultimately, the government intervened. Earlier today at the U.S. Supreme Court, the Christian Right once again attempted to justify injustice, asserting that religious freedom grants them the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people. But before gay wedding cakes were ever up for debate, we saw the Christian Right manipulate religious freedom to enable racial discrimination, too.

In 1970, Bob Jones University (BJU), a fundamentalist Christian school in Greenville, South Carolina, came into conflict with the IRS over issues of racial discrimination (at the time, the school did not admit Black students). School officials argued that since they didn’t accept federal funding, they were free to operate according to their own will, proclaiming that their discriminatory policies were a matter of religious freedom. However, the Civil Rights Act of 1969 disrupted the legality of racial discrimination, and in 1976, the IRS rescinded BJU’s tax exempt status, which they only regained in February 2017 by reorganizing under the existing 501(c)3 status of Bob Jones Elementary. In its decision, the IRS affirmed that discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity is illegal, and therefore BJU was not justified in denying admission to Black students.

In an interview with religious historian Randall Balmer, longtime BJU administrator Elmer L. Rumminger explained that the IRS actions against his school “alerted the Christian school community about what could happen with government interference” in the affairs of evangelical institutions. “That was really the major issue that got us all involved.”

The Moral Majority was founded a few years later, formally establishing the Christian Right’s most powerful political coalition of the time. Paul Weyrich, the late conservative Christian political activist and co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, was one of the architects of the movement. In the mid-1970s he wrote, “The new political philosophy must be defined by us [conservatives] in moral terms, packaged in non-religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition…  When political power is achieved, the moral majority will have the opportunity to re-create this great nation.”

Weyrich could be thought of as the original “make America great again” evangelist — a man who was committed to an idealized notion of what America once was and dedicated his entire life to reinstating the dominance of a white, middle class, Christian patriarchy. The contemporaries of the now-defunct Moral Majority continue to weaponize religious freedom to advance the Right’s overarching goals of maintaining and advancing cultural, economic, and political dominance, at the expense of those who have been historically marginalized, including women, LGBTQ people, poor people, and non-Christians.

The Civil Rights Act prevented the Right from successfully manipulating religious freedom into a tool of racial oppression in the 1970s, but without federal protections1 against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, LGBTQ people remain especially vulnerable, and the Right is well positioned to exploit that vulnerability to its fullest extent.

Religious freedom was initially designed to protect religious minorities and nonreligious people, shielding them from the dominant culture’s religious imposition and preserving the separation of church and State.

As PRA research analyst Frederick Clarkson has carefully documented, religious freedom was initially designed as an important strategy for protecting religious minorities and nonreligious people, shielding them from the dominant culture’s religious imposition, and preserving the separation of church and State. Again, the Christian Right is manipulating this progressive value to justify discrimination against those who are not aligned with their particular ideological views. Increasingly, religious freedom is being used to deny the right of LGBTQ people and women to have agency over their own lives and bodies and to live according to their own beliefs and values.

The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling in 2014 enabled the large, family-owned chain of craft stores the right to claim a religious exemption from providing employees with healthcare insurance that covered four kinds of contraceptives, based on the company owners’ belief (medical science notwithstanding) that they are abortifacients. This was the first time a private business was granted religious standing under the First Amendment, which dangerously expanded the notion of corporate personhood, granting for-profit entities legal justification for religion-based discrimination.

Today, this corruption of religious freedom is being tested again as the Supreme Court hears the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Jack Phillips, a professional baker and the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Denver, Colorado, refused to make a wedding cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a gay couple who sought out his services in 2012. Phillips’ refusal violated Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits businesses open to the public from discriminating against customers on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. According to Phillips (who is represented by the right-wing Christian legal group, Alliance Defending Freedom), making the cake would have forced him to “use my creativity, my talents and my art for an event — a significant religious event — that violates my religious faith.”

Unfortunately, Jack Phillips, like many fundamentalist Christians, sees LGBTQ people not simply as people who are LGBTQ but as people who believe that they’re LGBTQ. Because he makes a distinction between the sexual orientation of Charlie Craig and David Mullins and their humanity, he feels justified in refusing to serve them. From his perspective, he’s not discriminating against a gay couple — he’s rejecting the notion that Charlie and David’s queerness is an inherent part of who they are.

This is dangerous, and (in Colorado) it’s illegal. A person’s religious faith does not give them the right to decide whether or not another person’s identity is real, and it certainly doesn’t give them the right to discriminate.

The Moral Majority disbanded in 1979, but the strength and influence of the Christian Right has continued to steadily expand, thanks to the leadership of organizations like Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, Alliance Defending Freedom, the Heritage Foundation, and others. Over the last 30 years, these groups have built inroads at all levels of governance, from local school boards to the White House, and they ultimately endeavor to establish and enforce a brand of Christian nationalism that fundamentally disregards the rights and liberties of LGBTQ people, women, and non-Christians (as well as Christians who interpret and live out their faith differently than those who are fundamentalists).

Fortunately, they haven’t yet succeeded. And so those who are called by their faith and moral convictions to fight for justice and equality for all people must remember that religious freedom is their right, too, and they must reassert and reclaim its progressive foundation.


1 Under the Obama administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission adopted the position that LGBTQ discrimination was covered under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. The Trump administration reversed this decision in July 2017.


When Exemption is the Rule: the Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right

A groundbreaking 2016 report by PRA senior fellow Frederick Clarkson details the strategy and agenda inside the Christian Right’s campaign to exempt not only religions, but individuals and businesses from civil rights and labor laws using a false notion of religious freedom.

By creating zones of legal exemption, the Christian Right seeks to shrink the public sphere and the arenas within which the government has legitimacy to defend people’s rights, including reproductive, labor, and LGBTQ rights.

However, the Christian Right’s religious freedom strategy is part of its long-game and is not merely an anti-LGBTQ tactic. Its long-range goal is to impose a conservative Christian social order inspired by religious law, in part by eroding pillars of undergirding religious pluralism that are integral to our constitutional democracy.


Read the Report in HTML

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Download the PDF

religious exemption report cover

Read the Executive Summary

religious exemption exec summary


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.