How the Christian Right Interprets and Tries to Legislate Religious Liberty

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Last week, a Texas Senate committee convened a special hearing to explore ways to “protect” religious freedom.

"Religious Freedom" by Moses Jacob Ezekiel. Source: Creative Commons (Smallbones).

That’s a noble aim and in a state as religiously diverse as Texas, home to the country’s largest Muslim and second-largest Hindu populations, probably a necessity. But this Senate committee, called in part by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton, was actually not about strengthening current anti-discrimination laws that protect religious liberty.

Instead, it was a parade of Christian self-victimization, with “experts” bemoaning the devastating effects of treating LGBT Texans equally. Business owners claimed they had to close their shops because they were being forced to cater to same-sex couples, which they said went against their religious beliefs.

I flew from Washington, DC, to Austin to join representatives of other civil rights and civil liberties organizations, to share with the committee what real religious discrimination – especially in Texas – looks like. I shared with the assembled Senators the stories of Hindu Texans who were bullied or harassed because of their religion. Those stories included Bhutanese Hindu refugees (settled in cities like Houston, Dallas, and Lubbock) who were denied basic necessities unless they converted to Christianity. Those stories also included the testimonies of Hindu students in Texas schools who were physically attacked.

But the senators seemed more interested in hearing the stories of Christian pastors who described the woes of having to minister to same-sex couples. To them, and their “expert witnesses” (among them being representatives of far-right, anti-gay groups), the real victims here are “committed” Christians who can’t in good conscience treat homosexuals and transgendered people as equals. To them, religious freedom means the right to deny one’s civil rights in order to affirm one’s own religious beliefs.

When a Jewish man talked about fearing that his gay son would be attacked because of insufficient protections for LGBT community members, one senator responded by making a Nazi reference. To this senator, a “committed” Christian serving same-sex couples would be akin to a Jew defending a Nazi. Sadly, that’s how the majority of the committee seemed to view religious discrimination.

But not all the senators were buying the religious liberty justification. One senator, who affirmed his own Christian beliefs, noted that there were passages in the Bible that justify slavery, and that weakening anti-discrimination laws would allow “committed” Christians to deny services to racial minorities. Of course, his counterparts on the right don’t see it that way, because they point to the “sin” of homosexuality that can be “cured” through counseling.

While the Texas legislature is not in session, it’s a sure bet the state will try to enact similar legislation like Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which allows businesses to deny same-sex couples services based on one’s religious convictions. After a public outcry, the Act was amended to include protections for LGBT community members.

Even in Texas, business groups like the Texas Association of Business are hammering the Senate for considering a similar measure. Maybe the senators will listen. But Kathy Miller, president and executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, isn’t as hopeful.

“I don’t think this issue is going away,” said Miller. “I think because religious liberty is an absolutely fundamental freedom that we all agree on, using the term religious liberty as a dog whistle for heightened politicized measures will not be less common, but more common in Texas.”


Murali Balaji, Ph.D, is Director of Education and Curriculum Reform at the Hindu American Foundation. A Fulbright Specialist and former journalist, he had previously taught at Temple University, Lincoln University and Penn State University. A longtime advocate of minority issues, Balaji is the author of several books and is the editor of the anthology, Thinking Dead (2013).

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