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Whose Religious Freedoms?

by Jennifer Vanasco on February 23, 2012

in Civil Rights,Jennifer Vanasco,News,Politics,Religion

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On Tuesday, GOP candidate Mitt Romney was asked by a voter what he would do to “secure our religious freedoms” as president.

Romney’s answer was unexceptional: he would protect religious freedoms  - unlike the president, he said, who clearly has a secular agenda.

I’m interested less in Romney’s generic, to-be-expected answer than that he was asked the question in the first place. It’s a sign that a new conservative strategy surrounding social issues, first articulated in the courts around 2005, is sifting down to regular Joe Conservatives.

Under the old strategy, conservatives set off the culture wars. They called themselves the Moral Majority, said that gays, feminists, etc., were going to hell, and basically said that they are right because they believe God thinks they are right and everyone else is wrong.

The old strategy gave rise to the “gayness is a choice” argument, the “gays are perverts because gay sex is perverted” argument and the “marriage is only between a man and a woman because its always been that way” argument.

For a while, that strategy was pretty effective. In fact, Santorum is still working that old playbook, and it seems to be helping him gather delegates.

But the culture is changing, and just painting homosexuality as being wrong – and for that matter, having sex outside marriage as being wrong – just isn’t working as well anymore.

Enter the New Strategy.

The New Strategy focuses on rights instead of values. It says that religious conservatives believe that a certain set of things (marriage equality, gay adoption, employers paying for contraception) is wrong – but that they understand not everyone thinks that way. However, whether you agree with the morality or not, says the New Strategy, we can all agree that we value religious freedom and the state shouldn’t be infringing on ours.

The fight against this New Strategy has been playing out for the past few years all over the country, but it’s been heating up recently. Less than a year ago in New York, a vote on marriage equality was delayed until religious exemptions were added (they were harmless). The Roman Catholic Church used the strategy to try to pressure the Obama Administration not to mandate contraceptive coverage in his health care plan. And in Virginia on Tuesday, a “conscience clause” allowing private, religious adoption agencies to discriminate against gays and lesbians was sent to the governor.

The change in strategy is smart – very smart – in part because it is so sneaky.

For one thing, it plays on cherished American beliefs. Americans, as a people, are very drawn to rights arguments. A strong belief in civil and human rights is a founding principle of our country and at the very center of our national character. A belief in religious freedom, in particular, is vital to the American understanding of itself. America exists, after all, because brave religious pilgrims sought the freedom to exercise their religious beliefs.

Whether one is religious or not (I happen to be), this argument resonates with Americans at all levels, from Congress to the courts, from legislatures to the layperson. No one wants to infringe on religious freedom. Allegations of this sort are taken very, very seriously, as they should be.

But is that what’s happening here? With gay marriage, with gay adoption, is it true that the state, by giving one group full rights, is therefore infringing on another group’s beliefs?

No – or I think, not usually, and not in most of these cases.

If the state was insisting that congregations marry gay people in their church, in their synagogue, that would be obviously infringing. That’s an easy one, because that’s not what civil marriage does.

Adoption is a bit trickier. But I feel pretty confident in saying that equal access to adoption isn’t infringing on religious freedoms if

1. The adoption agency gets any state money and

2. The agency lets people not of its faith adopt from the agency or work for the agency.

If, for example, a Catholic agency lets a straight Hindu couple adopt – well,  that couple is clearly not comporting with their theology, is it? It can’t be that the agency can pick and choose – seemingly at random – which of their principles they are going to stand behind and which they aren’t. (It’s OK if you don’t believe in Jesus, but not OK if you’re Christian and gay!) That sort of randomness tends to look an awful lot like discrimination.

But fundamentally, the New Strategy is sneaky because it asks for the state to privilege a small subset of religious beliefs – in general, Catholic and evangelical Protestant ones. Note that the same people who squeal about gay marriages trampling their religious beliefs had no problem protesting a Muslim center planned for lower Manhattan. And I’m sure they aren’t advocating for fringe Mormon groups in Utah to be allowed to practice polygamy, even though polygamy is part of their founding texts.

And they are certainly not trumpeting the right of more liberal Christian denominations to be heard, since those congregations perform gay and lesbian marriages.

No, New Strategy activists aren’t upholding a principle, but rather a particular belief system. They are not looking for religious freedom. They are looking for a religious monoculture. They want domination.

Which is exactly what the Constitution, in its clause prohibiting the establishment of a state religion, was trying to avoid.

The New Strategy isn’t religious freedom for all – its religious freedom for a few. And that makes it very un-American.


Jennifer Vanasco is an award-winning writer who specializes in national electoral politics and LGBT and women’s issues. Most recently, she was Editor in Chief of MTV Network’s gay news and politics website For 15 years, she wrote a nationally-syndicated newspaper column on gay and lesbian politics and life. Her work has appeared in the Village Voice, Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post and WNYC public radio’s politics blog. She lives in Manhattan with her fiancée Jenny.

Her website is – please follow her on Twitter @JenniferVanasco and like her on Facebook.

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jeparleaméricain February 23, 2012 at 5:53 pm

Excellent article! You're a great addition to the NCRM team!

nottooold February 23, 2012 at 7:42 pm

Very clearly put.

Jennifer Vanasco February 23, 2012 at 8:54 pm

Thanks jeparleaméricain and nottooold for the lovely welcome!

queerbec June 5, 2012 at 1:35 am

Thank you Jennifer for explaining what was somewhat of a nebulous concept I had been trying to put into words myself. My big fear is that most Americans will buy into the "victimization" argument and see the attempts to assure religious liberty as instead attacks on the narrow beliefs espoused by various denominations. In other words, these narrow minded individuals say that "by protecting "them" from my narrow view of religion you are infringing upon my religious belief that I must create laws to make them adhere to my religious beliefs. How dare you?" And I fear that most Americans will not want this purported "right" taken away from their religion.

But, let's face it, in the end iff it were down to just Mormons and evangelical Christians, for example, they would be hell-bent to fight each other tillonly one victor remains. False allies, indeed.

danielwalldammit July 31, 2012 at 11:32 am

"Religious Freedom" is rapidly becoming code for increasing the power of employers to control the lives of their workers.

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