License to discriminate: Religious exemption laws are trampling rights in rural America

License to discriminate: Religious exemption laws are trampling rights in rural America
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Fifty-one years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that when businesses are open to the public, they must be open to all, regardless of who the customer is or the owner’s political beliefs. And yet, we find ourselves again in a pivotal moment in the United States, where the federal government, state and federal courts, and lawmakers are attempting to insert religious exemptions into nearly every area of life, from business to health care to state-contracted child welfare agencies

By allowing service providers to pick and choose who to serve or how to serve them, these religious exemption laws give people a “license to discriminate,” and chip away at two of the most core American values: freedom of opportunity and fairness for all.  

Nowhere is the impact of religious exemptions more heavily felt that in rural communities across the country.  


With dwindling retail, a proliferation of religiously affiliated hospitals, and the geographic distances from community to community, women, people of color, people of minority faiths, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals find themselves wondering how far they will need to travel to find a doctor who will treat them, a restaurant that will serve their families, or a job with a living wage. 

In a report released earlier this month, Where We Call Home: LGBT People in Rural America, by a coalition of organizations and authored by the Movement Advancement Project, the unique challenge that religious exemptions laws pose for LGBT people in rural communities is made crystal clear. 

In rural areas, many key services — including health screenings, job training, food banks, homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, nursing homes, child welfare services, and more — are provided by religiously affiliated organizations. And while not inherently discriminatory, these institutions — even those which are taxpayer funded — are increasingly permitted by federal and state religious exemptions to opt out of following existing nondiscrimination laws. 

Instead, these institutions are able to choose who to serve and how to serve them. In fact, rural states are far more likely to have religious exemptions laws: nearly 60 percent of rural states have some kind of religious exemption law, compared to 32 percent of urban states. LGBT older adults in rural communities are particularly vulnerable to discrimination because of the limited number of senior care facilities, many of which are religiously affiliated. A new bipartisan bill introduced last week by Sens. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetDemocrats see Christmas goal slipping away Hickenlooper: Law preventing cannabis business banking 'a recipe for disaster' Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall MORE, Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSenate leaders face pushback on tying debt fight to defense bill Congress should reject H.R. 1619's dangerous anywhere, any place casino precedent Democratic frustration growing over stagnating voting rights bills MORE, and Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseySenators urging federal investigation into Liberty University's handling of sexual assault claims Crucial talks on Biden agenda enter homestretch Senate Democrats call for diversity among new Federal Reserve Bank presidents MORE, the Inclusive Aging Act, would, among other key contributions, establish a rural grant program to expand access to culturally competent health care for LGBT elders.

Rural areas face, among other structural challenges, increasing shortages of healthcare and other service providers. This means that in many rural communities, these religiously affiliated providers may be the only provider available. If LGBT people are turned away or discriminated against — which religious exemptions may allow — then LGBT people in rural areas may not receive these critical services at all. 

Such discrimination in housing, employment, places of public accommodation, health care, and beyond is pervasive for LGBT people, in rural and urban areas alike. In a 2017 survey by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, at least one in five LGBT people had personally been discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity when seeking housing, when applying for jobs, when it came to being paid or promoted equally, and while attending college. Roughly one in six LGBT people had personally been discriminated against when seeking medical care.

It is time to update our nation’s laws. 


Federal, state and local action is needed to both explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and to ensure our shared value of religious freedom isn’t used to undermine other shared, core values. It is imperative that voices of faith, women, people of color, and LGBT people work together in this effort to protect all Americans.  

Legislation like the Do No Harm Act would ensure that existing religious protections in our country are not used to discriminate, to deny health care, or to condone child abuse. Given the structural challenges facing rural communities, rural Americans — including LGBT people — are uniquely vulnerable to this form of discrimination, but the risks posed by religious exemptions impact all Americans. 

No one should be turned away from a domestic violence shelter in the middle of the night because they are a single or divorced parent. 

No child should be refused a loving foster home because potential foster parents don’t meet a religious litmus test. 

And no one seeking medical care should be turned away because of who they are or the care they need. 

Ineke Mushovic is executive director of the Movement Advancement Project, an independent, nonprofit think tank that promotes equality. Find her @inekemushovic