By Kalli Joslin
I first learned of Americans United during my senior year of college. My now-fiancée and I were neck-deep in debates with the college president, who was considering allowing an evangelical Christian student organization to categorically ban LGBTQ+ students from leadership positions in their club. The issue was personal to me as a queer, Christian woman – I am living proof that those identities can co-exist, so it infuriated me that other Christians were attempting to twist my faith in order to discriminate against me and others like me.
My fiancée reached out to AU for advice, and the conversations we had with Policy Advocate Samantha Sokol (shout out!) helped us ultimately prevail. The college president announced after almost a year of deliberation that all student organizations must abide by the school’s non-discrimination policy, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories.
Now, having a year at Georgetown Law under my belt, I have an even stronger understanding of how some people distort religious freedom in ways that harm others. Recently, houses of worship in multiple states have been seeking to defy stay-at-home orders in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. I’m proud of AU’s work to combat these challenges, and I’m especially glad to see that the Supreme Court agrees: restricting all in-person gatherings, religious and secular, to limit the spread of a deadly pandemic is not an attack on the right to freely exercise religion.
Even more recently, the Supreme Court held that federal employment anti-discrimination laws extend to protect sexual orientation and gender identity. My fiancée and I are both working from home this summer, so we were together when the ruling was announced. We got to dance, kiss and hold our cat while we told her that her moms have new civil rights. (She was very proud.)
But there’s still plenty of work to be done. This summer, I’ve already started doing research for AU’s amicus brief in the upcoming Supreme Court case Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which could allow religious foster care agencies to reject same-sex couples who wish to be foster parents. On the four-year mark of the Pulse massacre, the Department of Health and Human Services also issued a rule rescinding protections for LGBTQ+ people seeking health care, allowing medical providers to withhold care on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Meanwhile, millions of Americans are unemployed due to COVID-19 and LGBTQ+ Americans (especially trans women of color) are highly susceptible to hate-based violence, emphasizing the need for affordable, accessible and affirming health care for all.
The harmful HHS rule is just one example of why we urgently need comprehensive, enforceable non-discrimination laws. Discrimination in areas like health care, education, public accommodations, and housing is killing members of the LGBTQ+ community. Defending such discrimination on religious grounds is not only antithetical to a society that values religious pluralism and equality but also disregards the core doctrines of love and acceptance found in almost every major religion.
It’s important to note that non-discrimination laws alone are not enough to solve the larger patterns of discrimination and prejudice in our country. The protests mobilizing around the country following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others are proof that entire systems need to change or fall in order to realize equality among all.
In the face of these overwhelming challenges, my contributions this summer will be small in comparison. But if my voice is able to make a difference for the thousands of children in foster care – many of whom are Black, disabled, and/or LGBTQ+, or help put an end to the unfair denial of medical care based on sexual orientation or gender identity – then this work will have been worth it.
I’m so proud to be at AU this summer, and I look forward to continuing the fight for equality in the coming months and beyond.
Kalli Joslin is working as a litigation intern at Americans United this summer.