Latest “Religious Freedom” Bills Reveal a New Strategy

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin marked the arrival of Spring by signing a new “religious freedom” law that allows student groups at public universities and high schools to turn away LGBT students, ostensibly in the interest of permitting “students to voluntarily express religious or political viewpoints.”

Kentucky’s new law is just the latest salvo in a growing trend that uses weaponized “religious freedom” legislation to target specific state functions or agencies, effectively gutting existing LGBT protections in those areas. South Dakota led the way, followed by Alabama, and Texas’ SB 156.

The avalanche of anti-LGBT legislation already passing necessitates a sobering reminder: It’s only March.

“Several state legislatures have filed religious refusal laws this year, claiming that their goal is to curb ‘government discrimination’ against religious people or organizations,” said Ashe McGovern, the associate director of Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project at the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. “This signals a rethinking of strategies [about how to pass anti-LGBT laws] and an acknowledgement that ‘government discrimination’ against religious organizations or people is a more resonant framework than one that outright condemns LGBTQ people.”

Like most of the so-called “religious freedom” legislation we’re seeing lately, the Kentucky law makes no explicit mention of LGBT people, nor does it include the words “sexual orientation” or “gender identity.” Instead, in what critics see as an effort to shield such laws from legal scrutiny, the law positions itself as “viewpoint-neutral,” suggesting that “no recognized religious or political student organization is discriminated against in the ordering of its internal affairs.”

While that language sounds innocuous, it doesn’t take a legal scholar to understand how that vague requirement could be used to defend exclusionary membership policies that, for instance, require anyone interested to sign a “statement of faith” that denies the validity of LGBT identities. That’s all well and good for a religious group, but when that group is receiving funding or resources directly from a public school (funded by taxpayer dollars), the burden to serve “all comers” is much more substantial.