ALARMED AT the prospect that the Supreme Court will sanction same-sex marriage in every state, conservative state lawmakers are intensifying efforts to provide legal cover for evangelical Christians and others who regard homosexual unions as an affront.
There can be legitimate debate on the balance between religious liberty and laws intended to prohibit discrimination. In what has become a classic example: Should a wedding planner be required to work with gay clients if his or her religious convictions are offended by the idea of enabling a same-sex marriage?
But in many instances the bills conservatives are advancing are drafted so broadly that they would go much further — giving conceivable grounds for discrimination by individuals and businesses that might claim religious justification for their refusal to hire, employ or serve gay men or lesbians, or members of virtually any minority group.
For instance, a bill the Georgia Senate approved this month bars the state government from infringing on an individual’s religious beliefs unless the state can demonstrate a compelling interest in doing so. The bill’s defenders insist they intend no harm to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people or anyone else. But the measure could embolden landlords, employers or shop owners to bring lawsuits, claiming that their faith compels them to refuse homosexuals — or, for that matter, Jews or Muslims.
Equally concerning are legislative attempts by states to roll back local ordinances that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Arkansas last month enacted such a statute, barring localities from going beyond the state’s anti-discrimination laws — which do not prohibit bias against gay people.
Similarly, lawmakers in Texas are pushing to amend the state constitution to undo anti-discrimination ordinances adopted by a number of the state’s biggest cities, including Dallas, Houston, Austin, Fort Worth and San Antonio.
Advocates for those state measures present them as meant to block any infringement on religious liberty as well as an effort to standardize discrimination laws so that businesses and individuals do not face a confusing patchwork of local laws. Yet many businesses are warning against such measures as antithetical to states’ efforts to promote commerce and attract a diverse class of people who can invigorate economic development. Those arguments helped convince Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) last year to veto a so-called religious liberty bill, which would have enabled discrimination against LGBT individuals.
Other states should be equally wary of embracing intolerance under the guise of protecting people of faith.
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