Lecture Examines the Junction between Religious Freedom and LGBT Rights

The St. Thomas More Society of the Notre Dame Law School hosted Ryan T. Anderson, Ph.D. on September 13, for a lecture entitled “Shields, Not Swords: On Religious Liberty and LGBT Rights.” The lecture, co-sponsored by the Irish Rover, provided a legal perspective on the attitude required for the peaceful coexistence of both those who wish to defend the rights of the LGBT community and those who wish to defend religious liberty.

Anderson laid out the premise for his talk as, “conceptualizing both [sides of the argument] as shields, and neither as swords. We can go wrong here when we try to weaponize either religious liberty, to coerce other people into living out our religious beliefs, or when we weaponize anti-discrimination laws in a way of forcing other people into affirming our own beliefs.” In order to concretely demonstrate how this concept plays out within the socio-political sphere, Anderson provided examples for how anti-discrimination and religious freedom relate to one another in non-controversial areas. He then articulated the current struggles involving efforts to promote religious liberty and efforts to prevent discrimination against the LGBT community, and the similarities between them.

Anderson pointed out that both religious liberty and religious persecution have been present within the United States from the very beginning. He recalled the Puritan settlers who traveled to America to flee from religious persecution, only to immediately begin persecuting others. This is a “religious temptation,” he explained, where one desires “freedom for me and conformity for thee,” which can be seen on both sides of the argument—the desire to coerce the other into complying with their own views.

However, Anderson asserts that the Founding Fathers found the correct attitude towards religious liberty, which can inform the present-day struggle. Drawing from both George Washington and James Madison, Anderson pointed out that from the initial founding of the United States, the government has never required “religious orthodoxy” from its citizens, instead recognizing that religion is a fundamental human duty which, according to Madison, “must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man.”

The nature of the government of the United States, as asserted by Anderson, is to allow its citizens to flourish by maintaining three types of harmony: harmony amongst people, internal harmony for the individual, and, finally, a supernatural harmony between the individual and God. These are the ultimate purpose of anti-discrimination laws, protection of conscience laws, and protection of religion laws, respectively.

Thus, the government must tread carefully in each of these areas, especially when they seem to contradict each other. This results in careful balances when a court considers a case where anti-discrimination and religious freedom are argued against one another. Anderson presented several non-controversial examples involving racism and Title IX to demonstrate how the balance should be drawn for current situations involving the LGBT community and religious rights. One example is that there is a significant number of religious exemptions regarding Title IX, which was put in place to guard against discrimination on the basis of sex. These exemptions clearly do not involve aspects such as sexual assault, but rather cases like a seminary, where they are easily allowed to be a male-only institution without that being regarded as discrimination.

Reaching into the heart of the issue, Anderson read a statement from Sarah Warbelow, the legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, who said that certain anti-discrimination laws mean “a transgender person who shows up at an emergency room with something as basic as a twisted ankle cannot be denied care, as sometimes happens…. That also means if a doctor provides breast reconstruction surgery or hormone therapy, those services cannot be denied to patients seeking them for gender dysphoria.”

Such a statement, on the one hand, may appear to protect against discrimination, but on the other, seems to infringe on the rights of a doctor who objects based on religious beliefs. Pointing out that this is a conflation of two issues, with the first example provided truly being an example of discrimination, but the second being a situation where a transgender person is not being denied care because of their identity as transgender, but rather the doctor believing it is bad medicine to perform such a procedure. Anderson contends that every disagreement does not need to turn into a purported case of discrimination, connecting to his original argument that it is necessary for both sides to be thought of as shields, and not swords. This, in Anderson’s view, is the avenue for both viewpoints to have their rights protected without either having their rights infringed.  

Therese Benz is a senior English major who loves guinea pigs, bell peppers, and The Lord of the Rings. If you ever desire to fangirl over any of the above, please contact her at tbenz@nd.edu.