GOP is back to pushing bigoted legislation under the guise of 'religious freedom'

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Four religious refusal bills have been enacted into law this year, with several others making their way through state legislatures across the country.

Religious refusal bills are making a resurgence amid a wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation across the country.

Of the more than 250 anti-LGBTQ state bills introduced so far this year, 43 would let businesses and individuals cite religious freedom as an excuse to deny goods and services to LGBTQ people and others, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Four such bills have been enacted so far this year that give the green light for anti-LGBTQ discrimination from individuals, businesses, and health care providers based on religious beliefs.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) became the first governor in 2021 to sign such legislation, giving formal approval to SB 124 on March 10. That law states that local governments and state agencies have to be less restrictive when enforcing government laws and policies, when an issue concerns someone's exercise of religion. Civil rights and LGBTQ organizations opposed the bill because they said it would hurt LGBTQ people and other groups by using religion as a weapon to discriminate.

The signing marked the first time in six years that a major state "religious freedom" bill was signed into law, the Human Rights Campaign said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota said the legislation would be used to harm marginalized groups. Janna Fairley, the group's communications director, told the Advocate in March, "We're deeply disappointed to see this bill signed into law and are concerned that it will be used to justify harm to already vulnerable communities. No one should be turned away from housing, health care, or critical social services because of who they are."

On March 26, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) signed a bill into law that states medical practitioners, hospitals, insurance companies, and pharmacies can deny people health care services based on religious, moral, or ethical beliefs. Those services could include referral, testing, dispensing or administering drugs and medication, and patient counseling or psychological therapy.

Sean Cahill, director of health policy research at The Fenway Institute, an LGBTQ health care research, education, and policy group, told the American Independent Foundation in March that the law would hurt health care access for LGBTQ people during a time when many are even more economically vulnerable because of the pandemic.

And Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) signed SB 215, known as the Montana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, on April 22. State and national LGBTQ rights groups said the law would make it more difficult for local governments to respond to incidents of discrimination against queer and nonbinary and/or transgender people by individuals and businesses.

Shawn Reagor, director of Equality and Economic Justice with the Montana Human Rights Network, told the Associated Press in April, "This (law) allows individuals to turn the shield of religious freedom we all hold dear into a weapon to attack LGBTQ and Indigenous Montanans."

Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, stated, "SB 215 will have a significant impact on vulnerable communities in Montana — including people of faith, women, and LGBTQ people."

Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, meanwhile, celebrated the governor's decision. He wrote in an email, according to LGBTQNation, "[Gianforte] has been signing so many good bills lately that his hand must be tired! And he’s done it despite the bullies who’ve come knocking!”

The Family Research Council is an anti-LGBTQ hate group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Before becoming governor, Gianforte's foundation, the Gianforte Family Trust, donated to the organization as well as another anti-LGBTQ hate group, the Alliance Defending Freedom, between 2008 and 2013 according to BuzzFeed News.

Overall, 17 anti-LGBTQ bills have been signed into law this year, exceeding the 15 enacted in 2015, a record high at the time. Along with the religious refusal legislation, seven trans sports bans and two bills regulating how students learn about LGBTQ people in the classroom have also been signed by governors, the Human Rights Campaign said. Eleven other anti-LGBTQ bills are sitting on governors' desks currently.

The wave of so-called "religious freedom" legislation marks a low not seen in several years.

A number of laws citing religious freedom as a cover for discrimination were enacted in 2015 and 2016.

In 2015, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed his state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act legislation into law, and in 2016, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) signed a similar bill that allowed individuals and businesses to deny services or goods to anyone they wanted based on their religious beliefs.

Both laws were met with heavy backlash.

The Indiana law was quickly was criticized by Apple CEO Tim Cook, Angie's List CEO and Co-Founder Bill Oesterle, and other business leaders, with Osterle saying the law was a factor in his decision to cancel an expansion of the company's headquarters in the state, according to the Indianapolis Star. The Republican mayor of Indianapolis, Greg Ballard, said the law would hurt the city economically and governors in several states banned state-funded travel to Indiana if it was not considered essential.

Several states also banned non-essential travel to Mississippi after its law was enacted in 2016; it received pushback from business leaders like the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, which warned of detrimental economic impact as a result of the law.

"Mississippi is an amazing place, and it's filled with amazing people. But if you don't know that, you're going to choose to not come here because of bills like this," bakery owner Mitchell Moore told NPR at the time.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.