It is commonly being said today, “Religious people are complaining that it’s discrimination to take away their right to discriminate against LGBT people.” If something just doesn’t seem right about this statement, your’re right.
The First Amendment
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
So religious people have the right to free exercise and speech regarding their religion. This does not mean their rights can override other U.S. laws. For example, if your religion tells you to kill all the infidels, you are not going to get by this murder because of the First Amendment. The focus here is primarily in regard to government infringement of rights, not so much the private sector.
Civil Rights Law
Another important piece of law in regard to discrimination is the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Its Title II and VII bar public accommodation and employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Sometimes there are religious exemptions from this law – sometimes not.
State and Local Discrimination Law
States and local governments are increasingly adding their own discrimination laws or expounding upon their existing laws to include both sexual orientation and gender identity. Many states and municipalities have civil rights commissions to receive complaints, investigate, fine, require sensitivity training, and file criminal lawsuits.
What is discrimination? In the broadest sense of the term it is to distinguish between to things. Every time you have a choice, you are discriminating. If you choose chocolate instead of vanilla, you’ve discriminated for chocolate and against vanilla. The problem is when people discriminate for invalid reasons and it harms others. But what is a valid discrimination to one person is invalid to another. This is why the government has enacted laws to help regulate these differences of opinion. But another problem occurs when the government includes different groups of people into discrimination law because conflicts arise.
For example, consider an African-American civil rights organization that needs to hire a new director. Latino and Asian applicants apply but are not considered because the organization deems it important to hire an African-American person. Is this discrimination? Yes. Is it invalid discrimination? It depends who you ask. Most Latino and Asian people, if putting themselves in the shoes of the African-American organization, see the point of hiring an African-American director. But some will not see anyone elses view but their own and see it as unjust discrimination. What if the organization hires a contractor for landscaping services and only considers African-American companies? Is this unjust discrimination? It depends on who you ask. Some will say because African-American companies loose business to bigoted decision makers that they deserve some type of affirmative action to help level the playing field. Others will claim this is technically unjust discrimination and is wrong. So even within the same class, in this case race, conflicts arise. Discrimination law cannot eliminate the charge of unjust discrimination but hopefully it can minimize it.
The same conflicts are arising with LGBT rights which are now being included with race, color, religion, sex, and national origin in many states/municipalities. Many on both sides can understand the others perspective and not wish to force others to do what they find objectionable. In Kentucky a Christian owned print shop refused to print T-shirts for a gay pride event and was penalized for violating a local civil rights ordinance. A local lesbian printer publicly supported the Christian printers decision because she realizes that if someone wants her to print an anti-gay T-shirt, she doesn’t want to be penalized. For those who cannot or will not understand others perspective, the courts will decide for them. But rest assured, where inevitable conflict exist in discrimination law, one side will feel justice has been served and and the other will feel unjustly discriminated against.