U.S. Religious Freedom and LGBTQ Rights

July 26, 2021

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The interface between U.S. religious freedom and LGBTQ rights is back in the news, with a recent Supreme Court ruling and ongoing debate on legislation in Congress. In June 2021, the Court issued a 9-0 opinion in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. The case revolved around a 2018 decision by the City of Philadelphia to bar Catholic Social Services (CSS) from placing children in foster homes because the Catholic agency did not license same-sex couples to be foster parents. CSS sued the city to reinstate the contract, arguing that its right to free exercise of religion and free speech entitled it to reject qualified same-sex couples. Some justices on the Court, which ruled in favor of the Catholic agency, are seen as questioning the future of Employment Division v. Smith, a landmark decision known for changing the scope of  free exercise doctrine.

Similar questions on religious freedom and LGBTQ rights are also at the center of debate over the proposed Equality Act in Congress. The bill aims to amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in a wide range of areas. U.S. faith leaders are divided over the Equality Act and LGBTQ rights more generally. While media coverage often focuses on religiously linked opposition to LGBTQ rights, the longer history of religion and LGBTQ rights—as well as its contemporary framing—is far more complex. In addition, some scholars have made the case for linking sexual and religious freedom or for making legislative compromises to avoid conflict between gay rights and religious liberty. In light of the recent Court decision and proposed legislation, the Berkley Forum invites experts to reflect on the broader relationship between U.S. religious liberty and LGBTQ rights.

This week the Berkley Forum asks: What might the Fulton case suggest about the future of religious freedom and LGBTQ rights in the United States? Why do supporters of religious freedom and advocates of gay rights often seem to talk past each other? What aspects of moral, philosophical, or legal thought could inform an approach that minimizes conflict between religious freedom and LGBTQ rights? What lessons from the history of religion and LGBTQ activism might find resonance in our current moment, especially when public debate tends to pit the two against one another?

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