- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2016

Ahead of a Supreme Court case that could drastically shape the scope of religious liberty, a gay rights group is blaming religion for promoting slavery and racial discrimination and drawing an analogy to religious leaders now.

The Leadership Conference Education Fund, one of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights coalitions, issued an update Monday to a report that draws a parallel between those who justified slavery on religious grounds in the 19th century and those who subscribe to traditional views of marriage, the family and sexual morality for religious reasons.

Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference, said cake bakers invoking their rights to religious liberty are part of a long line of believers who have used the argument to oppose “women’s suffrage, racial integration, interracial marriage, the acceptance of Asian immigrants, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the abolition of slavery.”

“What is now often called America’s original sin, slavery, was once justified by Confederate President Jefferson Davis as ‘established by decree of almighty God,’” Mr. Henderson said Monday on a press call.

The Leadership Conference used this line of reasoning to attack the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law at the heart of the Supreme Court case this week challenging Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate.

Because a broad reading of religious freedom once was used to justify slavery, the Leadership Conference urged the court now to reject pleas from religious nonprofits that say that being forced to help provide abortion-inducing drugs and contraceptives would violate their religion.

“So-called religious freedom bills like those introduced in Congress and in states nationwide, and similar arguments being used in Supreme Court cases like Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and this week’s Zubik v. Burwell, are attempting to twist these values into an ugly justification of bigotry,” Mr. Henderson said.

Religious freedom, therefore, cannot be allowed to trump notions of “human dignity,” he said.

“These arguments are not new. But they are dangerous. There can be no religious exemption from basic human dignity. And to wrap this bigotry in a false flag of religious liberty is the true abomination.”

That their desire for religious freedom is a thinly veiled excuse for bigotry would be news to, among others, the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order challenging the contraceptive mandate that opposed racial discrimination as a matter of faith in the wake of the Civil War.

“They arrived in America just after the Civil War — that’s when they established and started doing their good work — and their homes for the elderly took in poor former slaves when most of the homes would not,” said Stephanie Barclay, counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the Little Sisters.

Although the Leadership Conference report points out instances in which religion has been used to justify slavery, it barely mentions the roles Christianity and religious leaders have played in ending slavery as well as Jim Crow segregation through the likes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. a century later.

“Religious motivation was one of the greatest inspirations for the abolitionist movement,” Ms. Barclay said. “It was religious individuals who also motivated that movement in Britain and ended a lot of terrible practices there.”

But Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, said the Little Sisters’ opposition to the contraceptive mandate has more to do with their interest in discriminating against women than in their desire to practice their religion free from coercion.

“Certainly, I do think that the Little Sisters of the Poor and the other groups do want to be able to discriminate against women in the provision of health care services, in ways that they are not objecting to the provision of similar health care services for men, including erectile dysfunction medicine, for example,” Ms. Warbelow said on the press call.

Ms. Barclay of the Becket Fund dismissed that imputation against the Little Sisters, pointing out that the nuns have not filed legal objections to providing male sexual-aid pills because the government has not required them to provide such services.

“The Little Sisters are not trying to keep their employees from getting anything,” Ms. Barclay said. “There’s an easy solution that protects the Little Sisters’ religious freedoms and the right of government to offer these services to women who want them. Rather than trying to force religious plans to offer them, the better solution is for the government to provide these services through the [Affordable Care Act] health care exchanges to any employees who want them who can’t get them through their health care plans.

“The Little Sisters are themselves women — confident, courageous women who want their rights as women to be protected and want to live their faith in peace,” she said.

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