AU’s executive director, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, explained to reporters at the National Press Club that the new project, Protect Thy Neighbor, will defend religious freedom as it’s actually defined by the Constitution.
“Twelve days ago, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a historic ruling, declared that marriage equality must be recognized nationwide,” he said. “While I applaud this action by the court, I’ve worked in the civil liberties field long enough to know that even a landmark ruling like this one is often far from the last word, as we learned in 1962 and ’63, when the high court handed down rulings banning coercive forms of government-backed prayer and Bible reading in public schools, and in 1973 after the court legalized abortion.”
He added that the Religious Right has described marriage equality in “apocalyptic terms” and that groups affiliated with the movement have stated they’ll seek legal remedies, like a constitutional amendment, and other laws that “give them the right to discriminate against same-sex couples on the grounds of ‘religious freedom.’”
AU’s legislative director, Maggie Garrett, and senior litigation counsel, Greg Lipper, echoed those concerns in their statements, and added that they are prepared to fight.
“Protect Thy Neighbor stands for the principle that everyone should be free to believe or not believe, but no one’s religious beliefs should be used harm others,” Garrett said, and added, “Our legislative team will be watching state legislatures, Congress and the [Obama] administration for policies that would sanction discrimination in the name of religion.”
And when governments pass discriminatory laws, Lipper said, Americans United’s legal team will take the fight to court. “These cases will be won or lost based on our ability to make it clear to judges that these radical religious liberty claims affect real people – who are denied service, or a job, or health care, or government services that their taxes have paid for,” he said.
The project is designed to counter the Religious Right’s stated intentions to undermine civil rights for LGBT people in the wake of the high court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling – and reclaim religious freedom as a democratic principle that protects everyone.
That’s necessary now because extremist groups have redefined “religious freedom” and in the process, turned it into a thriving industry. The grandmotherly florist, the mom and pop bakery: These cases are simply chum for a far-right perpetual outrage machine. Groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the U.S. Catholic bishops demand we protect our neighbors, as long as they are fetuses, or fundamentalist pastors, or corporate businessmen who think contraceptives are abortifacients.
Meanwhile, zealots profit – and inch ever closer to their goal of a theocratic America. This, to them, is success. But what does it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?
When these groups succeed, others suffer.
The Religious Right’s concern for its neighbors is as selective as its definition of religious freedom. They do not acknowledge the harm suffered by same-sex couples denied civil rights protections. They are not troubled by the consequences of restricting women’s health care. Yet these people, too, are our neighbors. And despite Supreme Court victories, they are in desperate need of protection.Unlike the Religious Right, we care about our neighbors – all of them. And we’re prepared to defend their rights in court, and in legislatures, and wherever else this extremist campaign to restrict civil rights rears its archaic head.
Your neighbors may be counting on it.