NC’s “Bathroom Bill” Shows Problem With “Religious Freedom” Label

Photo: Evan Derkacz, from @rdispatches on Instagram.

North Carolina’s newly enacted HB2 law, otherwise known as the “bathroom bill,” doesn’t mention “religious freedom” or “religious liberty” once. It has no special carve-out for “sincerely held religious beliefs.” But it’s being referred to as a religious freedom bill nonetheless, and that’s a problem.

MTV’s Jamil Smith opened a recent segment of The Racket by saying, “Whenever you hear a politician talking about religious freedom, someone’s probably being discriminated against.” He then went on to give two examples of “religious freedom laws,” including North Carolina’s HB2. “It’s more like ‘The Religious Right Wants To Keep Transgender People Out Of The Bathrooms That Correspond To Their Gender Identities Because They’re Scared Of Them…’ Act,” Smith said. In another video, the Atlantic’s Emma Green also characterized North Carolina’s law as a “religious freedom bill” that creates “protections for people, mostly Christians, who have religious objections to homosexuality same-sex marriage and transgender identity.”

Both characterizations are understandable given the very real campaign by some conservative Christian organizations to use “religious freedom” laws to uphold anti-LGBT and anti-abortion measures. Because of that campaign, the definition of “religious freedom” has been stretched to become nearly synonymous with discrimination, and the fact that major news outlets like MTV and The Atlantic are covering this shift is huge.

But when we use the term “religious freedom” to reflexively describe any laws that allow for LGBT discrimination, we lose some nuance.

It’s true that HB2 is supported by many of the same people who’ve campaigned for the recent wave of discriminatory religious freedom laws, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a religious freedom law. Calling it an anti-anti-discrimination law might be more accurate (if slightly less elegant).

And, as refreshing as it is that the abuse of “religious freedom” language has been routinely called out, characterizing HB2 as a religious freedom law ultimately draws attention away from the more pernicious agenda lurking behind this particular piece of legislation. As ProPublica’s Nina Martin has rightly pointed out, HB2 went far beyond bathrooms: “Tucked inside is language that strips North Carolina workers of the ability to sue under a state anti-discrimination law, a right that has been upheld in court since 1985.”

Plus, there’s another problem with the adoption of the “religious” label to describe HB2 as well as those laws that are more appropriately described as “religious liberty” laws (even with the scare quotes): in doing so we’re likely to overlook the cultural or political motivations behind them. As Darren Sherkat demonstrated on RD last month, for example, “[opposition to same-sex-marriage is] substantially higher in the South regardless of religious beliefs or identifications.”

The religious-freedom-bills-are-discriminatory shorthand enables a linguistic drift that may unwittingly mask deeper truths about a variety of activist efforts across the nation. If “religious freedom” and “religious liberty” have already become untethered from their original meanings, let’s by all means recognize that duplicity. But let’s also not let them float away altogether.