Four leading experts from the governmental and non-governmental sectors discussed current issues in the areas of religious freedom and civil rights, particularly gender and LGBT rights, as well as their confluence in a session during the ADL Centennial Summit, April 29 in Washington, D.C. The workshop included significant discussion on the meaning of religious liberty in a pluralistic society, and the increasing tension between assertions of religious freedom and civil rights.
Roy Austin, Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, addressed three major areas of DOJ's work – hate crimes, religious land use and human trafficking. According to Mr. Austin, religious minorities continue to be disproportionate victims of bias crimes, as well as denials of zoning applications for houses of worship and other religious institutions. One of the greatest challenges is balancing the fine line between free speech and anti-religious motivated criminal activity. He also touched on human trafficking, which he views as an issue of gender discrimination due to its disproportionate impact on women.
Amber Kahn, the first Muslim chair of the Interfaith Alliance Board of Directors, offered a broad perspective on religious freedom in America. She voiced a concern that claims of religious freedom are being used by certain segments in society to undermine the civil rights of women and the LGBT community. She believes that to address this issue there must be greater efforts to educate every-day Americans about the true meaning of the Constitution's religious freedom guarantees. She also believes that the long-term demographic increase of religiously unaffiliated voters - called "Nones" - could swing the balance in offsetting overreaching assertions of religious liberty.
David Barkey, ADL National Religious Freedom Counsel, specifically focused on state legislation -- asserting that it is the greatest threat to religious freedom and civil rights in America. According to Mr. Barkey, such threats come in traditional and novel forms. The traditional include renewed efforts to establish organized school prayer in public schools, and the failure of state legislatures to move forward anti-discrimination protections for the LGBT community, as well as comprehensive hate crimes laws. As to the novel, Mr. Barkey called attention to a growing trend of what he coined "excessive free exercise legislation." Such measures disrupt the delicate balance between the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses by allowing the religious majority to impose its faith on religious minorities, as well as undermine women's reproductive and LGBT rights.
Dan Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, believes the overly broad use of "religion as sword instead of shield" is a natural reaction by certain segments of society to growing religious heterogeneity, and gender and LGBT rights. From his perspective, the most effective strategy for countering overly broad claims of religious freedom is to focus on the unintended detrimental consequences of such efforts. Mr. Mach also provided detailed analysis of religious freedom challenges by for-profit businesses and companies to the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate.
The panel discussion was followed by a Q&A session in which the panelists fielded questions on the status of the Obama Administration's position on tax-subsidized religious discrimination in the federal Faith-Based Initiative, challenging state reproductive rights limits on gender discrimination grounds, and potential strategies for countering overly broad state religious freedom restoration act legislation.