"President Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast, February 9, 2018" by The White House / Public Domain

The Real Meaning of ‘Religious Liberty’: A License to Discriminate

Mar 3, 2020

By Katherine Stewart

This past January, on national Religious Freedom Day, President Trump announced a new set of recommended regulations that will make it possible for essential care providers receiving government funds to discriminate on the basis of religion. Under the new regulations, a nonprofit religious organization that accepts government grants will potentially exclude gay people from receiving certain benefits. Counseling organizations that receive vouchers or other forms of “indirect aid” from the government may be allowed to tell their patients that submission to God will solve their problems. Food pantries receiving government aid in a similar fashion may require that clients attend religious services in order to receive benefits.

All of them will be allowed to exercise faith-based discrimination in hiring. None of them will henceforth be under any obligation to inform the people receiving their services about secular alternatives, nor will the government be required to provide them. This is what “religious freedom” has come to mean in Trump’s America.

Religious nationalists have succeeded in framing the issue of religious freedom as one that involves wedding service providers, such as cake bakers, florists, and other sensitive people performing personal but also hardly life-saving or essential services. Setting aside the question of principle—Is it ever right to grant business a license to discriminate against law-abiding citizens in this way?—the implication of these narratives is that the stakes are small: Why not take your business over to a baker who will actually find some pleasure in helping you celebrate your happy day?

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