Column: Religious liberty bills protect bigotry, not freedom

There is something fundamentally wrong with legally allowing discrimination of a community to continue.

When I heard about a bill allowing for discrimination of LGBTQ individuals floating around the state legislature in Georgia, I wasn’t surprised.

Revolted, sure. Disappointed? Definitely. But after living in Georgia for 17 years, it wasn’t shocking. Georgia, bless its heart, has never been entirely up-to-date in the ways of equality.

But then, I learned of similar proposed bills in eight other states, including Senate Joint Resolution 39 in Missouri. My disappointment turned into frustration, then anger and disgust.

Seven Democratic Missouri senators felt the same way, prompting an impressive filibuster that lasted nearly 40 hours. Unfortunately, despite their efforts, senators on the other side of the aisle stopped the filibuster and voted in favor of the bill, which proposes a vote to amend the state constitution to protect religious leaders from being penalized for not performing same-sex marriages. The amendment would also protect religious organizations and anyone providing wedding-related services, such as a baker or florist, from facing consequences for denying a same-sex couple their services because of conflicting religious views.

No matter which political side you lean toward, any decent human being should understand that there is something fundamentally wrong with legally allowing discrimination of a community to continue. Passing legislation under the guise of religious liberty to perpetuate hatred and prejudice in our country is archaic.

First of all, religious leaders’ right to not perform a same-sex marriage based on their beliefs is already protected in the First Amendment. There’s no need to pass legislation reinforcing the separation of church and state. Missouri legislators might as well draft an amendment clarifying that grass is green.

And despite the redundancy of bills protecting religious leaders, these seemingly harmless bills can lead to broader discriminatory legislation. In Georgia, House Bill 757 passed in the House as the Pastor Protection Act last month. But when it came to the Senate, the bill was merged with Senate Bill 284, or the First Amendment Defense Act, which protects individuals from facing charges for sexual orientation-related discrimination if the discrimination stems from their religious beliefs.

If anything needs defending in this situation, it’s not the First Amendment. It’s the community of marginalized individuals who can still — in 2016 — legally face discrimination for their sexual orientation without the perpetrator facing any consequences.

The bills that have been proposed in Georgia and Missouri, along with Mississippi, Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, Florida and Oklahoma, aren’t actually protecting religious freedom. They are legally protecting people who use religious freedom as an excuse to persecute anyone who is different from them.

News flash: It is, in fact, humanly possible to simultaneously respect others’ rights and still disagree with them. Respecting a different belief doesn’t come at the cost of your own. You can still have your views, respect the rights of others, bake your cake and eat it, too.

And that is why saying that these bills protect religious liberty is completely ridiculous. Religious liberty is alive and well for those who have the decency to respect other human beings. These pieces of legislation aren’t protecting freedom. They are endangering the freedom of the LGBTQ community to be and love who they want without fear of persecution.

When our elected lawmakers are sworn in, they are vowing to protect our freedoms — but when they use these freedoms as a facade to perpetuate hate and fear, they are desecrating the very principles they promised to uphold.

As a constituent, I have never felt more betrayed.

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