Third place — Law student essay contest: Nneka Ewulonu
FFRF awarded Nneka $2,000.
By Nneka Ewulonu
Progress is often conceptualized as an arrow piercing forward through obstacles. In reality, social progress in the United States has involved centuries of pushing and pulling. Perceived decreases in societal power are met with resistance. From Jim Crow laws after the end of slavery to the rise of the tea party after the election of President Obama, those with power tend to tighten their grip in backlash against the marginalized.
Religion has often been offered, at best, as a reason for those in power to retain their place in society and, at worse, been used to discriminate against marginalized groups of people. With freedom of religion enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution, the question of whose rights prevail — the religious or the marginalized — has been encountered frequently throughout American history. Freedom of religion is an important cornerstone in this country, but so, too, is the right to life, liberty and property. Religious refusal bills should not be enacted because they weaponize the First Amendment to harm marginalized people, and specifically the LGBTQ community in recent times.
There is a long and storied history of religious freedom being used to advocate for bigotry. Religion and biblical interpretations helped prop up the institution of slavery. Many white people at the time used Genesis to show that different races of men were created separately and unequally; others used the mention of slavery in the bible as evidence of God’s approval of it. While abolitionists also used religion to advance their cause, the prevailing view was that the abolitionists were taking an extremist position on the bible. With the abolishment of slavery, these racist sentiments remained and were applied to combat racial integration. Segregationists subscribed to the same ideas of black people being inherently inferior to white people and argued that forced integration violated their sincerely held religious beliefs surrounding race. While not explicitly stating resistance to segregation as their goal, the timing of the rise in private Christian schools makes it clear that religion and racism were deeply intertwined in this era. Interracial marriage was met with similar resistance. Advocates in anti-miscegenation cases relied on Protestant interpretations of religion and race to bolster their claims on society’s natural order. Throughout American history, white Christians have weaponized freedom of religion to advocate for the continued marginalization of oppressed groups.
American courts have historically been slow to protect civil rights, but progress has still been achieved at all levels of the court system. With cases such as Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court has dragged American society kicking and screaming into a more progressive future. In previous cases, the Supreme Court established a test for when the government may infringe upon a citizen’s religious liberties. “First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion . . . finally, the statute must not foster ‘an excessive government entanglement with religion.’”
With the adoption of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, or RFRA, the law shifted to require a compelling government interest. This statute stated that the government may not infringe upon a person’s exercise of religion, even with laws that are generally applicable, unless the government demonstrates that the law “1) is in furtherance of a compelling government interest; and 2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest.” This language has gone on to inspire many religious rights bills at the state level.
Georgia Senate Bill 221, also known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, adopted the exact language of RFRA. While these laws may seem facially neutral or even beneficial, these laws focus more on giving religious individuals the right to refuse service to others rather than protecting an individual’s private right to worship how they choose.
Religious rights laws are, in reality, religious refusal laws. They come into direct conflict with the rights of minorities, especially the LGBTQ population. Georgia Senate Bill 221, like the federal law that inspired it, allows for a tyranny of the majority at the expense of a minority group. The 22,000 LGBTQ couples in Georgia now find themselves beholden not to their own religious ideals, but to the religious beliefs of those in power and around them. This country was founded in part to “establish justice” and “promote the general welfare.” It is patently unjust for certain segments of the population to be treated differently on the basis of immutable characteristics.
While religious rights should be protected, must not come at the cost of the marginalization of others. Like with slavery and segregation, this country must reject the notion that equality conflicts with individual religious liberties. An individual’s religious right should not confer the right to discriminate. A sincerely held religious belief that African-Americans are inferior would not be tolerated in the modern era; a belief that LGBTQ individuals are shameful, no matter how sincerely held, should be equally untenable. In an effort to protect individual religious liberties, courts have failed to advocate for the equally important rights of marginalized individuals, such as the LGBTQ community.
America is a microcosm of differing religions, ideals and cultures. The beauty of this country lies not in homogeneity, but in its differences. Throughout American history, society has ebbed and flowed in terms of progress in the realm of civil rights. At times, society has led this change from within; other times, the government or courts have intervened on behalf of a minority group. Religion has been used both to advance equality, but often times also to oppress the marginalized. Previous civil rights issues make it clear that religion cannot be an excuse to discriminate against others. While sexuality is not a federally protected class yet, America must learn from previous fights for equality and recognize that religion does not supersede civil rights.
Nneka, 24, is a second-year student at the University of Georgia School of Law with an interest in reproductive justice, drug policy, and LGBTQ rights. As an undergrad, she also attended the University of Georgia, where she majored in French and biology. Nneka has worked closely with the Roosevelt Institute throughout her educational career and has experience in researching and writing public policy.