Once upon a time, a novel called “The Handmaid’s Tale” imagined a future dystopian fractured United States in which the East Coast had been taken over by religious fundamentalists. Sometimes, truth is not so far off from fiction. In January, the US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) announced the creation of a Conscience & Religious Freedom Division within its Office of Civil Rights because apparently “For too long healthcare practitioners have been bullied or discriminated against because of their religious beliefs and moral convictions.”
According to Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights, “With a rise of complaints of religious freedoms and conscious we need to have an intuitional force to address them and to vindicate people rights when the law has been violated.” The new division’s mandate? To shield service providers who refuse to provide care and services on religious or moral grounds. For example, to LGBT people.
Coming soon to your neighborhood…
On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission showed undue hostility toward the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop based on his religious beliefs after members of the commission said the owner was using his religious beliefs as a justification for discriminating against gays (the baker refused to bake a gay male couple a wedding cake). It wasn’t exactly a full vindication of the right to discriminate against gays on the basis of religion, but it could lead there, the way things have been going, and in the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “[T]he religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression.” Oh, great.
In response to the ruling, the US Department of Justice released a statement saying it was “pleased” with the court’s decision and that “The Supreme Court rightly concluded that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission failed to show tolerance and respect for Mr. Phillips’ religious beliefs.” Hello, Republic of Gilead.
On the plus side, however alarming the threat of the freedom of religion protections provided by the First Amendment being used to roll back gay rights, more realistically any reduction in gay rights is likely to be minor and face an immediate legal challenge. For example, Kennedy also wrote, “Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth” and that “gay persons [should not be subjected] to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.” According to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal “Social Trends” poll conducted in September, only 33% of Americans still oppose gay marriage, so seems fair to assess that increasingly progressive attitudes among the general public towards gay and lesbian issues will act as a passive bulwark against any legislative or executive attempt to erode our rights.
That said, there are real and present dangers to our community in 2018 that transcend bakeries and wedding cakes. At present, the biggest threat seems likely to be a global rise in intolerance, or what we might facetiously call a “Hate Wave.” The entire world seems to be experiencing a wave of homophobia, xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, etc.
In nine of the U.S.’ largest cities, hate crimes grew 18% in 2017, according to police data compiled by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino, a trend that started in 2015 and accelerated during the US presidential election campaign in 2016. According to FBI data, anti-LGBT hate crimes specifically were only up 2% nationally in 2016 compared to 2015, but in some individual cities the rate drastically spiked. In Washington, D.C., for example, anti-LGBT hate crimes rose 59% in 2016 and accounted for a third of all hate crimes in 2017. In Seattle, more than a quarter of hate crime victims were LGBT in 2017, while in 2016 anti-LGBT crimes went up 24.5% in Los Angeles in 2016.
In Germany, whose Bundestag approved gay marriage in 2017, anti-gay hate crimes were up 20% in 2017. In the UK, anti-LGBT attacks are up almost 80% in four years. More specifically, anti-gay hate crimes in the UK increased 147% during July, August and September of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015, according to the LGBT anti-violence charity Galop. Hate crimes not only went up in Canada in 2016, but because 71% of incidents involved violence, Anti-LGBT hate crimes were also Canada’s most violent type of hate crime. Meanwhile, in Russia, hate crimes have doubled in the last five years, and Brazil holds the worst record for hate-based gay murders, with 331 recorded in 2016 (which comes to one gay person being killed roughly every 25 hours and is an increase from 210 murders in 2012).
The fact that this Hate Wave appears to be a global vice localized phenomenon suggests that the causes largely lie external to any one country, but on the other hand, there is also statistical evidence that hate crimes in some countries, like the US, UK, and Russia, increased after specific national votes or laws went into effect; in these cases, President Trump’s election, the Brexit vote, and Russia’s gay propaganda ban, respectively.
This timing suggests that the victory of conservative ideologies emboldens bigots to attack minorities; in essence, they believe that their use of violence is justified by the ascendency of conservative views at a national level. So whatever SCOTUS’ intention in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the fact that some people will interpret it as a win for religious fundamentalism over gay rights means that it will indirectly play into the continuation of this Hate Wave.