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July 05, 2022 HUMAN RIGHTS

"Not Those People"

by Rahmah A. Abdulaleem

“Those people need to use a separate bathroom.” “I should not have to serve them.” “It says in the Bible that what the government wants me to do is wrong.” “You can’t expose those people to my children.” Do these justifications sound familiar? You may think these are new statements being used in the current political and social climate that has been brewing in the last few years in this country and around the world. In the twenty-first century, these types of justifications are being used to support discrimination against the LGBTQ community, but all of those statements were previously used in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to justify racial discrimination and segregation. As a country founded on principles of religious freedom and religious liberty, it is fascinating just how religion has been used in this country. Since the founding of this country, citizens of the United States have used religion as a way to justify their actions against each other, sometimes with government “assistance” and sometimes without. Many of the religious freedom and religious liberty arguments currently being used in the various litigation against LGBTQ rights are not new.

Since the founding of this country, citizens of the United States have used religion as a way to justify their actions against each other.

Since the founding of this country, citizens of the United States have used religion as a way to justify their actions against each other.


As a member of a racial and religious minority in the United States, I am acutely aware that differences are not always celebrated and are more often than not used to pit one minority group against another for the “crumbs” of acceptance as “true” Americans. It is most distressing to me when my fellow minorities use the same language and justification for any type of discrimination against other minorities.

There is a reason that so much of the playbook of the civil rights movement has been adopted for the LGBTQ movement. There are so many similarities in how opponents of the civil rights and LGBTQ movements have used religious freedom and religious liberty to justify actions. The infringement of religious liberty has become a dog whistle. Religious freedom has become a weapon. I use the terminology that religious freedom is now being used as a sword instead of its original purpose as a shield. What do I mean by that? Instead of it being used by individuals to protect themselves (as a shield), it is being used to infringe on others’ rights under the guise of religious freedom (as a sword). Some would argue that these religious beliefs are sincerely held, and people should not be judged or discriminated against because of their religious beliefs—as if to say, “because I claim that it is religious, you can’t question it.” What is most interesting is that some of these “religious” beliefs are aligned with political affiliation or cultural norms and not necessarily from a religious “source,” such as a scripture.

As we learned in school, the original Pilgrims were fleeing religious persecution and wanted to start over in the “New World” with the freedom to practice their religion. We now know that this “history” is a whitewashed interpretation of what happened and why religious freedom was so important to them. Remember at the founding of the United States, the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment were not for everyone but only for white male landowners. White male landowners used these rights to subjugate the rights of everyone else. Even though nowadays it sounds absurd, for hundreds of years, American slavery was justified as having a biblical basis. Can you even imagine that the atrocities of American slavery were ever associated with a religion? Today, Christians are offended justifiably when you mention that the Bible was used to support enslaving a group of people based on their race.

After the Civil War, when slavery was no longer acceptable, Jim Crow laws and segregation took over with another veil of religious freedom and religious liberty justifications. It was in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 that the Supreme Court upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine that had been used to support segregation and Jim Crow laws. The “separate but equal” doctrine was based on a biblical interpretation that the races were not supposed to “mix.” Again, religious freedom and religious liberty were used to justify the actions of the group in power. It was the starting point for the white Christian nationalism movement that we are currently experiencing in the twenty-first century. It took almost 60 years for the “separate but equal” doctrine to be overturned by Brown v. Board of Education. Even after the ruling, it still took another 10 years and the entire civil rights movement for the “separate but equal” doctrine to be completely “erased” by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Ironically, it was only just this year, 2022, that the plaintiff in Plessy v. Ferguson was officially pardoned posthumously for that egregious ruling of “separate but equal,” even though a pardon was not necessary.

What do these civil rights lessons have to do with LGBTQ rights? Too often, people try to distinguish between discrimination based on race or ethnicity and discrimination based on sexual orientation when using religious freedom and religious liberty justifications. Typically, the argument goes as follows, “you can’t choose your race or ethnicity, but you can choose your sexual orientation.” Not even getting into the debate on whether sexual orientation is a choice or not, what about the fact that individuals choose their religion? My religious tradition teaches me that all people are born Muslim. I know that people who follow other religious traditions or no religious tradition would definitely push back against that statement. Why is it okay to use something you chose (your religious tradition) to discriminate against others? Any form of discrimination is wrong.

There is no justification that supports the use of the legal system to harm and hinder an entire group of people through discriminatory rulings and laws. The fact that recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions (Masterpiece Cakeshop and Fulton) make it appear that religious freedom rationale can be a legal loophole to justify ignoring non-discrimination clauses that include sexual orientation is troubling. It is reprehensible to use religious freedom and religious liberty justifications to make it acceptable and legal to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

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Rahmah A. Abdulaleem

Executive Director, KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights; Vice Chair, ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice's Religious Freedom Committee

Rahmah A. Abdulaleem is the executive director of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights and the vice chair of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice's Religious Freedom Committee.