Earlier this summer, a string of libraries across the country were forced to cancel an event called Drag Queen Story Hour, a program in which drag queens are dispatched to schools, libraries, and bookstores to read to children. Obsessive coverage from conservative news outlets throughout this year have sparked vehement religious protests and even outright threats of violence; events were canceled in Pittsburgh, Leander, Texas, Houston, and more.
Drag Queen Story Hour is a non-profit organization started by queer San Francisco author and parent Michelle Tea in 2015. Currently, the organization has 42 branches across the U.S. and internationally. While the books the queens read typically focus on themes of diversity and inclusion, one of the organization’s board members, Lil’ Miss Hot Mess, told Vox last year that local library officials and organizers choose which books are read at the events.
Religious conservatives were quick to conflate the readings with so-called “transgender ideology,” claiming that the events are designed to confuse children about gender. In a First Things op-ed in May, the New York Post’s Sohrab Ahmari claimed the Drag Queen Story Hour was so offensive that the government should step in and shut it down — by force, if necessary. Religious conservatives should “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good,” Ahmari wrote.
Ahmari’s piece was a full-throated attack on the liberal order envisioned by the founding fathers, in which he essentially made the case for a Christian-dominated United States. Where previously religious conservatives might have engaged in good-faith policy debate over managing the divide between believers and non-believers, there’s a new status quo on the right. Christian dominionists, previously confined to small pockets of religious conservatism, have been emboldened by the election of Donald Trump and they now see a way forward in repurposing the institutions of the U.S. federal government to impose their worldview upon the country.
The country’s religious political base has not only become more conservative, but more isolated from the rest of society, thanks to Trump’s confusing directives. Despite the Trump administration’s claim that its policies on religious freedom simply allow religious folks to go about practicing their faiths in peace, it has instead created a makeshift double standard that separates religious conservatives from liberal in hospitals, schools, and other public institutions. Evangelical Christians and many hardline Catholics now enjoy legal preferences not shared by their Jewish, Muslim, or atheist brethren, who find themselves increasingly encroached upon by the creep of a Christian faith in which they don’t believe.
The U.S., of course, was founded as a land not ruled and controlled by church interests where folks could practice their religions in peace. This was largely the government’s philosophy on religious freedom under both Democratic and Republican administrations, and it was the basis for the bipartisan 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
In principle, the RFRA makes clear that religious freedom does not allow religious organizations or individuals to coerce others to follow their religious beliefs. For example, an Evangelical retailer cannot limit its offerings to only other Evangelicals. A Catholic doctor cannot demand a patient convert to Catholicism as a prerequisite for treatment. Religious individuals who are employers cannot demand their employees live according to their own religious ethos.
Evangelical Christians and many hardline Catholics now enjoy legal preferences not shared by their Jewish, Muslim, or atheist brethren.
“You can't inflict harm on a third party [with your religious beliefs],” Sharita Gruberg, the director of policy for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress, told me, referring to the original interpretation of the RFRA. “You have your right to your belief, but the minute that right conflicts with another person's right, that's a limit. And so, once again, as we're seeing this idea that your individual beliefs give you the right to harm someone else is, again, not in line with the law, but it's something that this administration believes is permissible.”
In the last several years, however, several key court decisions have eroded the principle that one’s religious views cannot be forced upon another person, and this has set the stage for Trump’s makeover of religious rights.
Gruberg said the end result of the administration’s new interpretation of religious liberty is a two-tiered legal system under which those with the correct government-sponsored religious views are subjected to a different legal standard. “The world that they are seeking to build is one where certain faiths get preference,” she said. “When they give these licenses to discriminate, they’re giving licenses to certain viewpoints, and that's problematic. So they’re preferencing certain religious viewpoints... It's antithetical to religious liberty, it's antithetical to our separation of church and state, to core constitutional values.”
Gruberg cites a laundry list of administration actions, such as rollbacks on LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections for contract workers and entities receiving federal grant money and empowering religious refusals in health care, being carried out by the federal government.
“We have the First Amendment of the Constitution, we have the religious freedom restoration act, we have a number of other statutes that codify religious liberty, and that’s great, it’s of fundamental value,” Gruberg said. “Where we see the problem is where they use it to undermine the rights of others… This administration doesn’t recognize these legal limits of religious liberty and that's where we’re seeing a huge problem and they’re acting through their enforcement of laws and the rules that they're putting forward as though these limits don’t exist. And that’s a huge problem.”
In 2010, Tamesha Means, then a 27-year-old woman from Muskegon, Michigan, was 18 weeks pregnant when her water broke. She went to Mercy Health Partners, the only hospital within a 30-minute drive, to discover she was having a miscarriage. The safest and most appropriate treatment for Means would have been terminating the pregnancy. Instead, hospital staff discharged her. A short time later, Means went back to the emergency room in excruciating pain. She was again sent home without care.
Unbeknown to Means, Mercy Health Partners was a Catholic-affiliated hospital at which termination of pregnancy was prohibited in all cases. The hospital wasn’t required to disclose its policy to patients, nor was it required to disclose alternative treatments which might have been performed at other facilities. Means, despite her dire condition, was forced to comply with the hospital’s policies.
Means eventually returned to the hospital for a third time. As hospital staff once again prepped her for discharge, her body began the delivery process. With that, the hospital staff could finally give Means the care she needed.
Means sued the hospital and several administrators, saying that their policies “cause pregnant women who are suffering from a miscarriage to be denied appropriate medical care, including information about their condition and treatment options.” A federal court dismissed the case in June 2015, ruling that that reviewing Means’s negligence claim would “impermissibly intrude upon ecclesiastical matters.” The Sixth Federal Appeals Court rejected Means’s appeal in September 2016.
Cases like this are becoming more common, according to Lois Uttley, the program director of the consumer-health advocacy group Women’s Health Program at Community Catalyst. “Patients could have a choice,” Uttley told me. “Some patients really prefer to go to a Catholic hospital. Maybe they were Catholic themselves and they wanted to make sure that they could get Catholic religious ceremonies, like communion or [last rites]. Other patients did not prefer that, so as long as there’s a choice, there really is not as much of an issue. But in more recent years, we've seen patients losing that choice in many parts of the country.”
Many patients are unaware that their health care provider may be operating under religious restrictions.
Christian health care providers are allowed to operate by a different standard of care for patients that secular hospitals or hospitals operated by non-Christians simply aren’t allowed to get away with. The government has often tried to settle the tension between maintaining the religious liberty of health care providers and the rights of patients by picking and choosing which medical procedures religious providers are allowed to refuse. These protections are always for procedures that Christians would object to, like abortion care, transgender care, or death with dignity. Under the current system, individuals are left to the Christian whims of their medical providers without access to secular options.
What’s worse, many patients are unaware that their health care provider may be operating under religious restrictions. Uttley’s own research discovered that 49 religiously affiliated hospitals are designated by the federal government as the sole community providers for their regions. A recent survey indicated that as many as 40 percent of patients are unaware of their local hospital’s religious affiliation.
“Even when the hospital is called something like Saint Mary’s or Saint Peter’s, I think what people typically would imagine is that they don't provide abortions. But that’s all they think of,” Uttley said. “[Such hospitals] also typically do not provide sterilizations, like postpartum tubal ligations... You remember now that these hospitals, many of them have outpatient clinics or they have buildings in which their doctors have offices. A doctor would not be able to talk about or prescribe birth control pills or insert an IUD in those circumstances.”
While some people may prefer a religious health care provider, pregnant and trans people in particular are often forced to seek care from religious providers that could refuse certain services thanks to simple geography. Such health care monopolies aren't the clean little “religious silos” that conservatives like French claim to want, it’s the intrusion of religion into the lives of those with other or no beliefs at all. If everyone is entitled to define their own experiences with religion, that should mean everyone is free to avoid the control of religion in their own lives.
The threat of Christian dominionism extends beyond health care into another sensitive environment: public schools. Chrissy Stroop, a writer who grew up in a conservative Evangelical family and is now an “exvangelical” activist, told me that church leaders at her Evangelical private secondary school would encourage young people to go into important fields — medicine, business, politics — in order to lead the political culture war.
“In AP biology we had a real secular basic college biology textbook, [but the teacher] did not teach us the evolution chapters, even though he knew that that was going to be a prominent part of the AP exams,” Stroop said. “So what he told us was to go read those on her own and regurgitate them for the exam because lying for Jesus is okay… Lying for Jesus is what evangelicals do when they need to, and there’s this kind of elite evangelical, which is kind of like what that school prepares you for. To go into the upper echelons of the culture warriors.”
Under Secretary Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education has taken steps to weaken the public school system in favor of school choice or charter schools, which can boost enrollment at parochial schools. Additionally, the administration has significantly eased the process for religious educational institutions for applying for religious exemptions for Title IX, which bans sex discrimination in education. Exemptions vary widely, ranging from blanket policies not to hire women in leadership or teacher positions, to banning LGBTQ identities on campus, and can even extend into investigations into systemic sexual assault issues on campus.
The Christian dominionist movement seen in our public institutions is in line with Trump’s push for religious liberty which, as Sohab Ahmari wrote in his op-ed, seeks to use government force to reorder the public square. “The general idea [of dominionism is] that Christians are supposed to take dominion of all aspects of society, including civil government, entertainment, education, and so forth,” Stroop said, who noted that under this concept, public schools would be shut down and religious orthodoxy would dominate the curriculum, abortion access would disappear, and the rights of LGBTQ people would be erased. “It would be an extremely oppressive white male dominated patriarchal Christian society.”
Under a president who has shown a compunction for redefining norms and tearing down democratic institutions, the need for clear-eyed analysis of what religious freedom means has become imperative. Like some of the first European settlers to come to the new world fleeing religious oppression, we all have a right to be free from the beliefs of others.