No Protection for Gays

By Ireland, Doug | The Nation, July 12, 1999 | Go to article overview

No Protection for Gays


Ireland, Doug, The Nation


There's a bill speeding its way through Congress that would shred much of the protection against discrimination provided by the dozens of local and state gay civil rights laws. It bears a highfalutin' title-the Religious Liberty Protection Act (RLPA)-and it prohibits states from "placing a substantial burden upon a person's religious exercise." Conservatives like RLPA-whose author is GOP pitbull Charles Canady of Florida-because it strengthens the place of organized religion in society. Liberals like the bill because it would protect minority religions in, for example, the wearing of beards, turbans or yarmulkes, or taking off religious holidays not celebrated by employers. Nearly half the original sponsors are Democrats. And RLPA is backed by a puissant coalition of some seventy religious, professional and political groups from across the spectrum.

But now the American Civil Liberties Union, originally a strong supporter of RLPA, has withdrawn from that coalition after careful study of the bill, charging-as ACLU legislative counsel Christopher Anders puts it-that RLPA is "a devastating piece of legislation on sexual orientation, marital status and the like that would upset the balance of civil rights laws at the state and local level." And a number of original RLPA sponsors-including liberal Democrats Jerrold Nadler, William Delahunt and Robert Wexler-have taken their names off the bill because of their concerns about how it would affect local gay rights laws.

Many religions teach that homosexuality is a "sin" and an "abomination" that can never be condoned. RLPA would grant those claiming such beliefs a religious liberty exemption from gay rights ordinances and would also permit other forms of bigotry. While the limits of RLPA would ultimately be decided by the courts, on its face the bill would permit people to cite religion as a reason for discriminating not just against homosexuals but also against people with other differences of which they disapprove on some ostensibly religious grounds. Thus, as the ACLU put it in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in mid-May, "If RLPA becomes law, an applicant for a job or housing may have no state law protection against having to answer such questions as: Is that your spouse? Are those your children? Are you straight or gay?... Are you HIV- positive?"

Judiciary Committee member Nadler offered an amendment that would prevent RLPA from overriding local civil rights laws. But it was recently defeated on a voice vote in Judiciary's constitutional subcommittee. That's why all major national gay rights and AIDS organizations oppose RLPA in its current form, as do the American Nurses Association, the National Organization for Women, the Feminist Majority, Women Employed and the National Catholic AIDS Network. …

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