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9 Tactics and 5 Mistaken Beliefs: The Christian Right's New 'Religious Liberty' Campaign Deconstructed

A stunning new report takes apart the religious right's latest makeover.

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Roman Catholic elites and rightwing evangelicals are repackaging their old attacks on contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights under a propagandistic umbrella of claiming new rights for “religious liberty,” according to an astute analysis that traces how this lobby is increasingly seeking legal protection to discriminate on religious grounds.

“The nerve center of the conservative ‘religious liberty’ campaign is a small group of conservative Roman Catholic intellectuals... and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,” wrote Jay Michealson in his report, “Redefining Religious Liberty, for Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank. “The campaign to redefine ‘religious liberty’ aims not simply to win religious exemptions to the law, but to contest the authority of secular law itself.”

Michaelson's report describes a multi-facted campaign that includes dozens of lawsuits attacking the Affordable Care Act by claiming that businesses and religious institutions have First Amendment freedom to withhold reproductive health care, to other claims—such as by the Boy Scouts—that they are being victimized by civil rights laws when instead they want the legal right to discriminate.

“There should be no mistake: the Right’s ‘religious liberty’ campaign is a key front in the broader culture war designed to fight the same social battles on new-sounding terms, and is part of a movement with old roots in Christian Dominionism (a form of theocracy) and ties to conservative Catholics who launched the anti-choice movement,” he wrote. “Its deliberate inversion of victim-oppressor dynamic has led to limits on women’s and LGBTQ people’s real freedoms in the name of defending chimerical ones. Proponents may sincerely believe that they are defending religious freedom, but the campaign’s endgame is a ‘Christian nation’ defined in exclusively conservative terms.”

The report highlighted numerous legal fights and tactics with outsized claims about religious liberty, as well as identified underlying prejudices driving these beliefs. These lists are eye-opening checklists of the latest makeover in America’s culture war.

The latest tactics and fights include:

• An ongoing PR campaign to convince Americans that religious liberty is under attack and deploying misleading exaggerations to scare voters, for instance, by falsely claiming that churches will be required to sacralize same-sex weddings and employers forced to pay for abortions;

• Reframing questions of discrimination (e.g., in the Boy Scouts) as questions of the religious liberty of those who wish to discriminate;

• Filing lawsuits to limit LGBTQ rights on religious liberty grounds and exploiting ambiguities in the law to conduct a nationwide litigation campaign;

• Exploiting the structural ambiguity in civil rights law that emerges when fundamental rights clash, as that between religious expression and civil rights;

• Scaring the public by eliding the differences in legal standards between discrimination against LGBTQ people and discrimination against African-Americans and other racial minorities, and suggesting that protections for the latter will be extended to the former;

• Influencing legislation to obtain exemptions from antidiscrimination laws, and enabling Christian organizations to discriminate (e.g. student clubs in the Virginia university system);

• Limiting access to reproductive healthcare, first through a series of religious exemptions for abortion and now by attempting to limit insurance coverage for contraceptives under the federal Affordable Care Act;

• Attempting to expand existing religious exemptions beyond religious organizations to include private businesses (such as the retailer Hobby Lobby, the plaintiff in a prominent current case); and

• Marshaling the support of academics who successfully argued a key religious liberty case before the U.S. Supreme Court for the Becket Fund and others who lend intellectual leadership for the movement, within the Christian Right and more broadly.