Religious Liberty and Workplace Discrimination

Religious Liberty and Workplace Discrimination

By: Robert Scott

All writers in Op Ed are here to inform and acknowledge issues of importance to our communities, however these writings represent the views  and opinions of the authors and not necessarily of The Advertiser. 

The impeachment inquiry regarding President Trump and perhaps others in his administration has the attention of all Americans interested in national politics, pushing most other issues aside in the public’s attention. But impeachment is not the only issue deserving national attention. Some important issues are truly being set aside; the necessity to address gun violence through legislation, diverting defense dollars approved by Congress to fund “the wall” not approved by Congress, and separating immigrant children from their parents are among them. Meanwhile, other issues are continuing to be worked by Congress or by the courts and have lost visible press coverage, because there just isn’t room. One court case in particular – consolidating three separate cases with conflicting lower court decisions – is scheduled to be argued this week, before the U.S. Supreme Court. Here is the issue.

On the one hand, Congress has passed and the Court has supported Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. That act among other things prohibits workplace discrimination “because of … sex.” Does this prohibition extend to “sexual preference” and therefore protect LGBTQ citizens from workplace discrimination? On the other hand, we have religious freedom as a fundamental right guaranteed to all citizens by the First Amendment. It states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” Does this freedom extend to the right of an employer not to be forced to hire persons that his or her religion sees as unrepentant sinners, whose very lifestyle violates the employer’s understanding of the will of God?

There have been three cases heard by three different courts on that very issue, and their rulings have directly contradicted one another. You may hear of them in the news; for the sake of brevity we’ll call them “Bostock,” “Zarda,” and “Harris Funeral Homes.” In two of these cases, the circuit courts ruled that LGBTQ workplace discrimination is, in fact, covered by Title VII and that claiming religious exemption on the part of an employer is no more valid than if one’s religious belief supported a prohibition against race mixing. Under the law, an employer cannot fire an employee because they married a person of another race. In the third case, the circuit court ruled that religious freedom and our cultural norms are so intertwined regarding LGBTQ persons, that the government cannot compel an employer to hire (or, more specifically, not to fire) a person who is openly homosexual or transgender. It is noteworthy that this is the legal stand currently taken by the state of South Carolina, which supports the right of any employer to fire such a person based only on their open LGBTQ status.

Several organizations have now submitted legal briefs to the Supreme Court opposing the stance taken by South Carolina that Title VII protections do not apply to LGBTQ status. Among them are the American Association of University Professors, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the Georgia Psychological Association. Also submitting legal briefs on that same side – maintaining that Freedom of Religion does NOT support such workplace discrimination – are many Church organizations, including the Episcopal Church, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the United Church of Christ, and “more than 700 individual faith leaders.”

Our country has come a long way since deciding that, under our Constitution, there are no valid, legal arguments favoring racial discrimination over arguments of fairness and equality of treatment. Let us hope that similar arguments prevail in the same way for our LGBTQ citizens.