What They Really Mean by 'Religious Freedom'

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The 2018 Values Voter Summit was held at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Northwest Washington, D.C. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The call to protect religious freedom — often code among social conservatives for the ability to discriminate against LGBT people — continued to be a rallying cry at the annual anti-LGBT Values Voter Summit, where attendees declared support for President Trump and his policies ahead of the upcoming congressional mid-term elections.

Speakers over the weekend at the annual confab in D.C. for social conservatives from Vice President Mike Pence on down repeatedly incorporated the term in their speeches, stoking paranoid fears that “religious freedom” is in peril and promising the Trump administration will act to preserve it.

But what do social conservatives envision when they hear from political leaders about religious freedom being in danger? After all, the concept of religious freedom being imperiled could also apply to Trump’s travel ban on Muslim-majority countries, but social conservatives have championed that policy.

Attendees at the Values Voter Summit who spoke to the Washington Blade about religious freedom largely signaled it was in fact a term used to express concern about the growth of LGBT rights and the desire for exemptions from laws that prohibit discrimination against LGBT people.

Kenny Nelson, a 20-year-old attendee from New York, said religious freedom constitutes the ability to exercise conscience “in the free markets,” including the denial of services to LGBT people.

“You have the right to say I don’t want to bake a wedding cake because I don’t support gay marriage,” Nelson said. “That’s really all religious freedom is to me, being free to express religion without persecution.”

Nelson said discussion is warranted over the ability to deny employment to LGBT people “like if you come out as something, will you get fired,” but in his circles a prohibition on anti-LGBT discrimination is the province of the states, not the federal government.

“I think that conservatives don’t like tackling that because it should be left up to the states, or something of that nature,” Nelson said. “We need to let people be free.”

But Nelson pivoted to the idea that religious people are facing discrimination in the workplace instead of LGBT people when elaborating on the issue.

“We need to let people be fired for whatever, but if you’re religious and you get fired, I think maybe religious freedom to me is being able to express your religious views without being totally persecuted for it by lawyers,” Nelson said.

Although federal civil rights laws don’t explicitly prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination in the workforce, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion.

Asked to identify any incident of individuals fired for their religious beliefs, Nelson identified David and Jason Benham, real estate entrepreneurs who were among the speakers at the Values Voter Summit.

In 2014, the Benham brothers were to set to launch a home improvement show called “Flip it Forward,” but HGTV scrapped the idea after comments emerged from the brothers over their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

David Benham wrote a 2012 article for the Christian Post in favor of Amendment One, a constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage in North Carolina. Benham called opposition to the amendment “a clear glimpse into why morals are declining so rapidly in our culture today” and said redefining marriage “because of one small group of people” would erode the concept of family.

“They got essentially fired for their religious beliefs, ultimately,” Nelson said. “So, yeah. I guess it can happen. I guess it’s sort of an outlier, so to speak. I’m really more focused on being able to say, ‘Hey, these are my religious beliefs, if I don’t want to provide you service, I don’t have to.'”

Two examples of individuals attendees referenced for acting in the name of religious freedom were Jack Phillips, the Colorado owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop who refused to sell a custom-made wedding cake to a same-sex couple and whose case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Barronlle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Washington State who refused to sell floral arrangements for a same-sex wedding.

Cindy Vick, a 59-year-old homemaker from Arlington, Wash., said religious freedom is under threat and cited as examples both Phillips and Stutzman, whom she called “true heroes.”

“They did not deny service to anyone because of any discrimination,” Vick said. “They could not because of their conscience and their religious beliefs partake of a same-sex marriage, so therein lies the difference. It was according to their faith.”

Vick drew a distinction between refusal of services for an individual based on religion or race and refusing it based on sexual orientation, insisting one is discrimination but the other is not.

“Discrimination would be when the customer walked into their store and if you’re black or yellow or red or green, and I refuse you service because of your color, or you are a certain race, or you subscribe to a certain belief system, [so] I refuse to sell you my cake or my flowers,” Vick said. “But that wasn’t the case, they didn’t refuse on those terms.”

Vick also expressed opposition to the underlying idea of same-sex marriage despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015 in favor of marriage rights for gay couples, saying “in the Bible it’s defined as a man and a woman.”

“You’re wanting to rewrite the definition of marriage, so call it something else, but it’s not marriage,” Vick added. “It’s a bogus term for the true meaning of marriage, and that’s what because of their conscience, due to their religious beliefs, they could not participate in.”

Phillips was among the speakers at Values Voter Summit. Introduced on stage as “Jack the Giant Slayer,” Phillips and was praised as an individual who stuck to his religious principles in the face of the intolerable forces of the LGBT left.

Recounting the story of gay couple Charlie Craig and David Mullins coming into Masterpiece Cakeshop to buy a wedding cake, Phillips said, “I knew this was a wedding cake that I could not create because I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.” That line got huge applause from attendees at the Values Voter Summit.

After he refused Craig and Mullins service, Phillips said the couple flipped him off and swore at him as they exited Masterpiece Cakeshop. The baker also said he had to endure hate emails and death threats and his daughter was threatened, but he stuck to his principles.

Phillips became emotional when he recalled years later reading from the Supreme Court orders list it had agreed to take up his case, acknowledging justices take up relatively few cases.

The decision the Supreme Court handed down in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case wasn’t exactly what Phillips wanted. Alliance Defending Freedom asserted the court should find Phillips has a First Amendment right to refuse service to same-sex couples. Justices instead delivered a narrow ruling for Phillips based on the facts of the case, finding an anti-religion sentiment within the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

Other attendees at the Values Voter Summit had a broader interpretation of the concept of religious freedom that wasn’t limited to refusal of service for LGBT people.

One 23-year-old attendee from central Kansas, who spoke on condition of anonymity, looked at the reports on religious persecution of Christians overseas when asked about the term religious freedom.

“You look at other countries like North Korea and Iran and other countries, less so, even like maybe Turkey where you can’t be a pastor without getting jailed,” the attendee said. “Religious freedom is the ability to witness, to talk to others about your faith, to live your faith out.”

But when asked if religious freedom could also be an excuse for anti-LGBT discrimination, the attendee said individuals should be able to refuse service to LGBT people if it contradicts their faith.

“It’s freedom to worship God,” the attendee said. “Now, you can’t violate your belief. If you believe something is wrong, then you can’t do something the opposite, like Jack Phillips.”

Omar Navarr, another attendee and the Republican candidate running against Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) in the congressional mid-term elections, had a different take on the concept of religious freedom and said it has a freedom of expression component.

“If you go to California, for example, if I go anywhere, try to express myself and my beliefs and my religious beliefs, I’ll be attacked and vilified for it,” Navarr said.

Navarr cited as an example of religious freedom under threat “being allowed to pray at a school because obviously that’s one of the things that the other side has cracked down on.”

“Tolerance is everything, and we have to make sure that we can have tolerance for religious freedom,” Navarr said. “I wasn’t so religious growing up or anything. I was actually a converted Christian, but at the same time, I believe that Christians should have the right to believe whatever they want to believe in as long they’re not pushing it so much into policy and stuff like that.”

Despite the presence of Phillips on stage at the Values Voter Summit, Navarr denied religious freedom formed a basis on which individuals could engage in anti-LGBT discrimination, saying, “I don’t see it in that.”

“There are different views that are out there,” Navarr said. “Like in anything, you’re going to have one side where they’re going to be discriminating against gays, and then, the other side that isn’t. Most Christians are not going to be doing that, for the most part.”


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