The Right’s History of Homophobia Provides Essential Context for Today’s Religious Liberty Claims

By Paul Gordon, Senior Legislative Counsel at People For the American Way

In Washington DC and state capitals across the country, we are hearing more and more claims that religious freedom is under attack, with concomitant calls from the Religious Right for new laws to protect religious liberty. These calls have gotten particularly loud in light of the advance of marriage equality and the possibility of a pro-equality Supreme Court ruling this June.

That timing isn’t a coincidence. While such bills are presented as being about religious liberty, they’re really about targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people for discrimination and marking them as outsiders to our society.

The “religious liberty” claim with its call to “live and let live” is believable only if it is completely divorced from context and history. It’s like a still photo, one split-second moment that is disconnected from either the past or the future.

But the history of the Religious Right provides vital context to their current claims. It is anything but a history of “live and let live” and respect for religious pluralism. Instead, it is a history of strident, uncompromising opposition to anything that diminishes the stigma of second-class citizenship for LGBT people, in situations having nothing to do with protecting anyone’s religious exercise rights.

We see this in the movement’s intense resistance to cultural change having nothing to do with the principle of religious liberty. For instance, it is not uncommon these days to have gay characters on television shows, and for news and talk shows to include issues relating to lesbians and gays. It was not always so. Talk show host Phil Donahue made waves beginning in the 1960s, presenting guests who happened to be lesbian or gay. They were shown to American viewers not to be dangerous or psychotic, but thoroughly ordinary. This was shocking and extremely daring in its day. In 1977, ABC launched a TV series called Soap that had an openly gay character (played by Billy Crystal). In 1981, NBC launched a series called Love, Sidney starring Tony Randall as a gay man, although his sexual orientation was downplayed after the pilot episode. In the 1990s, both Ellen DeGeneres and the starring character she played on Ellen came out mid-series, a television first. Soon afterward, Will and Grace premiered, featuring openly gay men as starring and supporting characters.

The full cast of Soap, for the show’s premiere in 1977

Importantly, cultural advances like these did not involve legal rights or obligations. But they were critical groundbreaking steps toward including lesbians and gays as part of American society, rather than marking them as dangerous outcasts who should be condemned or unacknowledged by decent people. And for that reason, these advances were all met with furious condemnation by Religious Right leaders.

For instance, in 1977, the Baptist Press reported on efforts by the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention to pressure sponsors of Soap to drop their advertising from the show. While they protested several aspects of the show, one was that it “deals with such sex-related themes as homosexuality…” The article noted the formation of a “No Soap” coalition of 10 national religious and civic groups that had been formed with the goal of pressuring ABC into cancelling the show.

The February 1992 edition of the Journal of the American Family Association featured an article condemning the progress in LGBT visibility that had been accomplished as of that point. The headline — TV’s New Minority: Homosexuals Gain Special Rights on Prime-Time — made clear their attitude that having gay people’s existence acknowledged on television in any sort of non-condemnatory context was simply unacceptable.

There have been many regular or recurring homosexual characters in the past few years, brought onto such series as the Showtime cable network’s BROTHERS (1984–88), CBS’s DOCTOR, DOCTOR ( 1989–91), and ABC’s HOOPERMAN (1987–89) and ROSEANNE, to make a pro-gay social or political statement. Frequently, a series regular at first intolerant of homosexuality is “enlightened” by episode’s end.
…Pro-family organizations are disturbed by gay rights on prime time. In an interview with TV, etc., Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, said that what is “most offensive is that Hollywood producers and writers are once again using their craft to push their social agenda on the rest of us, to indoctrinate viewers..
…Hollywood is pushing the envelope in its treatment of homosexuality. The economic reality of an advertiser backlash may be the most effective means of dampening TV’s gay-rights ardor.
Ellen DeGeneres at the 1997 Emmy Awards

In the late 1990s, the American Family Association organized a campaign to get advertisers to stop backing the show Ellen when it was rumored that her character would be coming out of the closet, because “we don’t feel homosexuality/lesbianism should be promoted on television as a normal, alternative life-style. It is not natural and it is not healthy.” Jerry Falwell called her “Ellen DeGenerate.” As recently as 2012, AFA’s One Million Moms waged a campaign against J.C. Penney when it hired Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson. The group made clear that its problem was that DeGeneres was an “open homosexual” rather than one hiding in the closet.

Strident opposition to anything challenging the cultural norm that lesbians and gays are dangerous outsiders to our society also motivated religious conservative leaders to object strenuously to the 1973 decision of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder. This was a milestone in the push for greater public acceptance of, and legal fairness for, gay and lesbian people, and anti-LGBT organizations have long sought to discredit this advance. Religious conservatives and their allies in the “reparative therapy” and “ex-gay” movements have long dismissed the policy change as an example of the medical establishment’s caving in to “intimidation” by gay activists. More than 40 years after the change, anti-LGBT activists like Ryan Sorba continue to make that charge. In 2011, Fox News contributor Dr. Keith Ablow picked up on charges by anti-gay activists Matt Barber and Judith Reisman and warned that the culture “is poised to begin embracing pedophilia as a lifestyle choice, just like homosexuality,” and claimed “psychiatry has a history of caving into [sic] cultural pressure to stop defining controversial illnesses as pathological.” In 2012, Peter LaBarbera went on the air with conservative radio host Janet Mefferd to criticize the APA for its decision to remove “gender identity disorder” from its manual of mental disorders. LaBarbera said “these professional bodies have all been infiltrated by LGBT activists” and have “politicized” science.

Even the idea of having an openly gay man serve on a presidential commission on AIDS was considered unacceptable to leaders of the religious conservative movement. In 1987, before his decade-long stint leading the Family Research Council brought him and his organization to national prominence, Gary Bauer was serving as an advisor to President Ronald Reagan. In a confidential memo only recently made public through the Freedom of Information Act, Bauer strongly urged Reagan not to appoint an openly gay man to the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic. He was quite frank that this was to keep in place the societal stigma imposed on lesbians and gay men:

Millions of Americans try to raise their children to believe that homosexuality is immoral. In many states homosexual practices are illegal, including sodomy. For you to appoint a known homosexual to a Presidential Commission will give homosexuality a stamp of acceptability. It will drive a wedge between us and many of our socially conservative supporters.

But conservative Christian organizations have not limited their resistance to cultural advances unrelated to anyone’s legal rights. Quite the opposite is true. They have long recognized that the force of law is a powerful weapon to ensure that a vulnerable population remains stigmatized and powerless, and that cultural and legal barriers can reinforce each other.

This was made clear in one of the earliest successes of the modern right-wing movement. In 1977, when Dade County adopted an ordinance to protect lesbians and gays from discrimination, Religious Right figures successfully led an effort to have the law repealed at the ballot box. Anita Bryant and her conservative Christian allies made national headlines through their “Save Our Children” campaign, which portrayed gays as predators seeking to sexually assault children.

Calling the anti-discrimination law “the homosexual recruitment ordinance,” a Save Our Children pamphlet asked, “Are Homosexuals Trying to Recruit Our Children?” To give readers the answer, the pamphlet reproduced newspaper headlines like “4 Men Accused of Abusing Boys,” “Teacher Accused of Sex Acts With Boy Students,” “Former Scoutmaster Convicted of Homosexual Acts With Boys,” and “Details of Rape Heard.”

The idea that gays endanger children has remained a staple of conservative Christian leaders’ efforts to keep gays and lesbians marked as dangerous outsiders to our society. Just one year after Anita Bryant’s successful campaign, conservatives in California launched a ballot measure to prohibit gays from teaching in public schools. Fortunately, Proposition 6 failed, but far right conservative leaders have never stopped linking gays with threats to children.

For instance, the American Family Association warned in a fundraising letter (cited in Anti-Gay Politics and the Religious Right, a 1998 report by PFAW Foundation):

For the sake of our children and society, we must OPPOSE the spread of homosexual activity! Just as we must oppose murder, stealing, and adultery! Since homosexuals cannot reproduce, the only way for them to ‘breed’ is to RECRUIT! And who are their targets for recruitment? Children!

This is not a tactic you would expect from an organized movement simply trying to make sure they are able to engage in the free exercise of religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment. But it is exactly what you would expect from a group pulling out the stops to ensure that lesbian and gay Americans remain denigrated and feared as dangerous outsiders in our society, targeted for hatred and humiliating discrimination at every opportunity.

Stripping gays of the right to freely raise their own children has also been a priority for Christian conservative organizations. The Religious Right cheered in 1993 when Sharon Bottoms lost custody of her son — to her own mother, no less — because she was a lesbian. When an intermediate appeals court reversed that decision in 1994, the Family Research Council called it “an unfortunate ruling,” saying “this young boy could be damaged without an effective male role model.” But when the Virginia Supreme Court reversed that court the next year, returning custody of the boy to his grandmother in part because the mother was in a committed lesbian relationship, conservative leaders praised the ruling.

“Common sense tells us a parent’s sexual practices have a strong influence on a child,” said Kristi Hamrick, spokeswoman for the Washington-based Family Research Council, a group she described as a pro-family public policy organization. “One of the messages of lesbianism is that men are not necessary, that men and women are interchangeable puzzle pieces.”
Mike Russell, spokesman for Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, said the ruling “is in keeping with what we think is mainstream Middle America’s wishes.” He said the 1.5 million-member coalition believes courts “should do all they can to strengthen the traditional family.”

The Religious Right has demanded that courts consider loving and committed relationships of same-sex couples as toxic to children’s welfare. One way this shows up is through custody agreements for divorcing parents. For instance, the Alliance Defense Fund helped represent a mother in the appeal of a 2007 divorce and custody case in Virginia called A.O.V. v. J.R.V., where the father was gay and in a relationship with another man. The trial judge had granted the parents joint custody, but he had also ruled that the father couldn’t have any companion with whom he had a romantic relationship stay overnight when the children were there, or even demonstrate affection with him in the presence of the children. The appellate briefs that ADF coauthored argued that the father should have been denied custody altogether because he lived with his partner, and that he should have been prohibited from ever being with his children and his partner simultaneously.

In this as in so many other areas, conservative Christian leaders — far from seeking to protect individuals’ right to exercise their religion in a diverse society — have long demanded that their particular religious opposition to homosexuality be imposed on others through the force of law.

That even includes criminal law. The Religious Right fought hard over the years to preserve so-called sodomy laws that branded gays as criminals and made them subject to police harassment and imprisonment. In 1986, the Supreme Court upheld such laws in Bowers v. Hardwick. Among those filing amicus briefs in support of these criminal laws were the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Concerned Women for America, and the Rutherford Institute. More than fifteen years later, when the Court overruled Bowers in Lawrence v. Texas, the Religious Right was well represented among those submitting amicus briefs in support of Texas, including the American Center for Law and Justice, Concerned Women for America, and the Family Research Council.

Lest one think religious conservative leaders were motivated only to protect the states’ right to enact sodomy laws without necessarily supporting the laws themselves, think again. For instance, when Arizona was considering repeal of its sodomy law in 1994, the Tucson Citizen reported:

But Cathi Herrod, state director for Concerned Women of America, said the laws need to remain on the books to maintain Arizona’s moral standings.
“They set a standard in our state. Their purpose is to protect the traditional family unit,’ she said.
“If the sodomy law is repealed, then it makes it harder to go to school and say the homosexual lifestyle can’t be taught as appropriate behavior,’ she said.

The ban on military service was another way to brand gays and lesbians as dangerous outsiders, and the Religious Right put a great deal of energy into opposing the end of that policy. Even more importantly, it shows how willing Religious Right activists have been to ignore the religious liberty of anyone who opposes their anti-gay agenda.

After “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was finally eliminated by statute, religious conservative activists sought to include language in defense authorization legislation prohibiting the use of military property for weddings or commitment ceremonies for lesbian and gay servicemembers, even in states where they were allowed to marry. The Family Research Council was among those cheering this effort, praising a supportive member of the House for “advancing an amendment that protects religious freedom while reinforcing federal law that defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman, for which he deserves our thanks.” Focus on the Family’s political arm CitizenLink condemned the use of military facilities to conduct religious weddings and commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples and praised legislation aimed at “preventing any same-sex marriage ceremonies from being performed on military posts, in accordance with the federal Defense of Marriage Act.”

Imagine if that had passed. Religious leaders would have been banned from performing certain religious ceremonies on base — not to comply with the Establishment Clause, and not to protect others from harm — but solely because it would have violated the religious beliefs of anti-gay conservatives. Religious Right activists would have celebrated this as a vindication of religious liberty. A more Orwellian use of that phrase is difficult to fathom.

The ban on military service and its “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” variant were not the only ways that conservative Christian organizations sought to prevent lesbian and gay Americans from wearing the mantle of patriotism by serving their country. For many decades, security clearances were routinely denied to government employees and contractors solely because they were gay. In 1995, President Clinton ended this practice, a decision which did not sit well with the Religious Right. As the New York Times reported at the time:

But Robert Maginnis, an analyst for the Family Research Council, a conservative group, issued a statement saying homosexuality had raised a red flag in security clearances “because in all healthy societies, homosexuality is recognized as a pathology with very serious implications for a person’s behavior.”

When gays and lesbians are branded as inherently putting our national security at risk, it becomes hard if not impossible for them to overcome their societal stigma.

Sadly, all these examples are just the tip of an extremely ugly iceberg. A priority of the Religious Right leadership for a long time now has been to impose their religious beliefs about homosexuality upon Americans of all religious beliefs, including through the force of law. The consequences in damaged lives has been staggering — parents separated from their children, teenagers driven to suicide, innocent people harassed and jailed as criminals, soldiers drummed out of the military, people fired from their jobs, couples forced apart at moments of family crisis and even at death … the list goes on.

And now, decades into this fight, the Religious Right recognizes that it is losing. Growing majorities oppose discriminatory mistreatment of LGBT people. So political and organizational leaders among Christian conservatives are desperate for a new tactic. If they can no longer ensure that their particular religious beliefs are imposed on others through the force of law, they demand exemptions from the laws they disapprove of with a deeply cynical and hypocritical call for “religious liberty.” And without the slightest acknowledgement of the irony, they attack equality proponents for not being willing to simply “live and let live.”

Conservative Christian leaders have generally not called for “religious liberty” exceptions to anti-discrimination laws so commercial businesses owned by people with sincere, religiously-based white supremacist views can deny service or employment to people of color. But when the targets are LGBT people — a group that religious conservatives have spent decades denigrating and harming at every turn — they change their tune. That inconsistency suggests that their calls for “religious liberty” aren’t really about that principle at all.

Conservative leaders have long used the force of law as a sword to harm LGBT people. Now they want to transform religious liberty into a similar sword. But religious liberty provisions have traditionally been recognized as a shield to protect rights, not a sword to deny them. They should remain that way. And many of the conservative invocations of religious liberty in current debates need to be recognized for what they are: a pretext for religiously-motivated discrimination, one that is being used in desperation when all other tactics have failed.