‘Religious exemption’ is really ‘religious privilege’

Sue O'ConnellWe have been oh so careful. How many times have we assured religious leaders that marriage equality will not mean that Catholic priests will have to start performing marriages between two lesbians? How many times have we bit our lip when a religious school has fired a gay person because he didn’t set the correct example? How many times have we crafted laws to clearly allow religious organizations an out — a way to circumvent the law because of their strongly held anti-gay religious beliefs?

We were careful because the LGBT community understood the tensions between religion and being LGB or T. Many of us are — or were — religious people. Many of us have been rejected by our faith leaders. Many of us have been rejected by our families because of their religious faith.

We grew a tolerance to the anti-gay parts of our religion, or we found a more accepting faith. We accepted our Catholic grandmother’s anti-gay sentiment as “religious conviction” even though she seemed supportive of our brother’s divorce.

Last week, the United States Supreme Court rewarded our thoughtfulness with a slap.

Religious institutions have always had the freedom to assert “religious exemption.” SCOTUS asserted that Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., a for-profit company, should enjoy that same “religious exemption” and can now legally omit reproductive coverage for women from their health insurance benefits because such family planning is in opposition to the Hobby Lobby’s religious beliefs.

The floodgates have opened and all sorts of organizations and companies are falling over themselves to express their “religious exemption” and avoid following the law. And the first “exemption” up for grabs? Protections for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender individuals.
(A special shout out to all the gay men who have hectored me over the years about how reproductive rights have nothing to do with gay rights. Get it now?)

We may actually end up in a country where we will have to choose between getting married or being fired.

So what do we do? First, it’s time to point out, as Amy Corcoran Hunt posted on Facebook, that the so-called “religious exemption” is really a “religious privilege.”

Hunt is no stranger to activism. She played a crucial role in our battle for marriage equality. She also knows a thing or two about branding. Our side (the side that supports religious freedom and equality) has an opportunity to clarify what’s happening.

Hunt explains on her Facebook page:

“An ‘exemption’ is freedom from an obligation or liability imposed by others. Do not use the language of ‘religious exemption.’ If progressive Democrats are true to form, they’ll just adopt the phrase, rail against it, and lose. Kind of like ‘tax relief.’ Adopt the label and you lose. I suggest the label ‘religious privilege.’ A privilege is a special right, advantage or immunity available only to a particular person or group. It’s accurate. And we do hate special rights. Do it, people.”

Do it, indeed. It’s a “so-called exemption,” it’s really a “religious privilege”. Say it loud.

Sue O’Connell is co-publisher of Bay Windows, South End News and Edge Publications.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 18, 2014.