Top stories of 2015 — ‘Religious liberty’ laws take national stage

Posted on 01 Jan 2016 at 7:50am

House-Bills-artThe concept of religious liberty is not new to the national discourse.

But defying the law because of sincerely held religious beliefs certainly was one of the hottest topics of 2015. In particular were bills many LGBT advocates called “right to discriminate” bills allowing broad exemptions for individuals and business owners to deny services to LGBT individuals based on religious convictions.

The debate over state versions of religious freedom restoration bills popped up in legislatures across the country, primarily in response to court rulings legalizing same-sex marriage and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergfell decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

Bills passed in Arkansas and Indiana over the objections of LGBT advocates, business groups and progressive organizations. Indiana’s Gov. Mike Pence defiantly claimed the bill enacted there simply protected individuals’ rights to exercise their religious freedom.
Pence and the Indiana legislature ultimately added language clarifying it would not allow for LGBT discrimination.

In Texas, similar battles were waged in the state legislature. A state representative dropped his bill due to objections from a coalition of business, LGBT advocacy, religious groups and elected officials. But another representative filed the bill. Fortunately for LGBT people and their allies those bills were defeated.

After Obergefell, numerous elected officials continued donning the mantle of religious liberty in their efforts to avoid recognizing marriage equality. Kim Davis, county clerk in Rowan County, Ky., became the national poster child for so-called religious liberty when she steadfastly refused to issues marriage licenses to same-sex couples, even after a judge sent her to jail. She ultimately relented when a staffer offered to issue the licenses, and then the Kentucky governor agreed to have marriage licenses statewide altered to remove the county clerks’ names.

Other county clerks followed suit. Spurred on by Texas AG Ken Paxton’s assurances that Texas county clerks didn’t have to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and that his office would help defend those who did so in court, Hood County Clerk Katie Lang also tried to hide behind religious liberty claims. She quickly relented, however after a Granbury couple filed suit and she realized she could be held personally liable for damages.

Nondiscrimination ordinances also were not immune from the debate. From Houston to Plano, anti-LGBT advocates said such ordinances also violated their religious freedom. The messaging was a success in Houston, where a campaign of conservative faith leaders and social conservatives ultimately lead to the ordinance’s repeal.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 1, 2016.

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