What Religious Exemptions Look Like in Practice

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  July 9, 2011 — 94 Comments

With the recent legalizing of same-sex marriages in the state of New York there also came a lot of talk about religious exemptions. These additions to the bill’s language were seen as critical to passage, and they exempt clergy and all religious institutions from having to accommodate same-sex couples looking to get married. During this process of negotiation some wanted even greater exemptions, which would include private businesses owned by individuals who had a religious objection to same-sex marriage. Thankfully, those expanded exemptions did not make it into the final language, and the legal status quo remained in place.

Jennifer Pizer, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and an expert on sexual orientation and discrimination, says that’s par for the course in America: You can’t let religious beliefs affect commercial decisions. “People are free to hold these views – they’re not just free to hold those views, they’re protected.” But, she said, “the current legal system does not permit people engaged in business to discriminate based on the proprietors’ own religious views.” Pizer said the New York debate over exemptions hearkens back to a time when religious views were used to justify racial segregation and opposition to equal-pay-for-equal-work legislation.

Expanding religious exemptions to private businesses isn’t simply about same-sex unions. Once you open that Pandora’s box, it would quickly create areas in the United States where certain groups are “relegated to a special untouchable status,” leading to the ostracism of a variety of communities and increasing “balkanization.” If you want to see what that would look like, you only have to watch this video from Anastasia, Priestess of The Temple of the Greek Gods, a Neo-Hellenic group currently based in North Carolina.

In short, Anastasia, along with Christopher, Priest of the Temple of the Greek Gods, were getting married on the weekend of July 4th. Anastasia’s regular hair stylist was closed, and so she searched for a someone else to do her hair and makeup for the ceremony, going through a string of recommendations until she found one willing to do the job. However, that stylist discovered that they were Pagan, cancelled, and then were called again by the salon proprietor’s husband to tell them that Jesus loves them. In addition, the stylist that gave the recommendation, when told of this incident after the fact, said that she “stands with Christ too” and encouraged Christopher to leave the establishment. They also lost their booked DJ, who “dropped off the face of the earth,” seemingly after learning what religion they adhered to.

Now, if any of these incidents can be proven, they are against federal law. Specifically the Civil Rights Act. Which bans “discrimination in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and all other public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce” on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” The only “outs” the salon in question might have is if they were operating the business illegally under-the-table (which means they’ll have a whole different set of problems) or if they were running a private salon “club” where one had to pay a membership due to participate. At least, that’s my understanding of the law. My legal expert readers can clarify/correct me if I’ve missed anything. There may also be local state laws that reinforce federal law on this subject, though I can’t find anything the specifically addresses religious discrimination by businesses.

I would advise (with the understanding that I’m not a lawyer) documenting everything that happened, save all voice mail messages, and create a timeline that you can refer to. If there are any witnesses, get them to do the same. I would then contact a Pagan civil rights organization like the Lady Liberty League, a secular organization like the ACLU of North Carolina, or a lawyer who handles civil rights cases.

The current push in several states to create conscience exemptions for individuals running private businesses, usually in a reaction to same-sex marriage, can have far-reaching consequences for any group that might run afoul of religious sensibilities. The minute we enshrine religious exemptions for businesses in defiance of civil rights laws is the minute we create whole communities where Pagan money isn’t welcome, and by extension, Pagans aren’t welcome. In the case of Anastasia and Christopher the result was inconvenience and emotional harm, but if allowed to stand it could lead to tacitly enforced “no-go” areas for non-Christians.

My thanks to C.L. Vermeers for bringing this to my attention.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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