February 27, 2020 at 3:17 pm PST | by Chris Johnson
Congressional hearing spotlights use of religious liberty against LGBTQ people

Ernesto Olivares and Evan Minton testified about the discrimination they endured as LGBTQ people. (Blade photo by Michael Key).

When religious liberty — a right afforded fundamental protection in the United States — is used to assault LGBTQ rights was the focus of a congressional hearing Thursday drawing attention to faith-based adoption agencies denying child placement into LGBTQ homes.

Chairing the three-hour hearing before the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee was Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who in her opening statement assailed the Trump administration’s use of religious liberty as a weapon to attack LGBTQ rights.

“Let me make something crystal clear: I am a strong supporter of religious liberty,” Maloney said. “But it should not be distorted and twisted into a weapon to enable discrimination. Scrubbing the White House website of references to gay people has nothing to do with religious freedom. It has everything to do with the Trump administration’s assault on the LGBTQ community.”

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Among the Trump administration’s actions highlighted during the hearing were regulatory moves allowing taxpayer-funded adoption agencies to refuse child placement in LGBTQ homes and a “conscience rule” allowing medical practitioners to decline to offer procedures they find objectionable, including gender reassignment surgery. (Courts have since enjoined the administration from enforcing the “conscience rule.”)

Although the title of the hearing was the Trump administration using religious liberty to assault LGBTQ rights, the scope was more expansive and covered anti-LGBTQ discrimination across the board.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said in his opening statement the “big question” is whether businesses engaged in commerce or federally funded institutions, such as hospitals and adoption agencies, can refuse services to LGBTQ people — and the answer should be easy.

“I am sure there will be a handful of close calls in harmonizing individual religious freedom and equal rights under law, but the vast majority of cases are, in fact, easy,” Raskin said. “Yet, alas, the Trump administration has been working zealously to turn the government into an instrument of hostility towards LGBTQ rights across the executive branch.”

At times, the hearing seemed more like two distinct conversations taking place, with Democrats asking their witnesses about LGBTQ rights, Republicans asking theirs about religious liberty and no attempt to reach a focus for common ground.

Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) was at the forefront of calls from Republicans to call for protections of religious liberty, even if those protections were at the expense of allowing anti-LGBTQ discrimination, based on language in the First Amendment.

“So we see that Congress cannot mandate a national religion. We get that,” Hice said. “But we also understand from this that neither can Congress prevent Americans from practicing their faith in the public square, and fundamentally, the First Amendment protects Americans from an ideological coercion from government. And this is the rub for me.”

Disputing the notion the Trump administration was assaulting LGBTQ rights, Hice insisted the United States is still “a world leader in guaranteeing the civil rights of all, including the LGBTQ community,” noting the appointment of Richard Grenell, acting Director of National Intelligence and now the highest-ranking openly gay presidential appointee in U.S. history.

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), one of seven openly gay members of the U.S. House and a witness before the committee, disputed Grenell’s appointment as evidence of Trump’s support for LGBTQ rights, saying that alone doesn’t cut it.

“The appointment of one person who’s LGBTQ,” Takano said, “does not compensate for the fact that last fall, the Trump administration made legal arguments before the Supreme Court that would limit non-discrimination protections under Title VII, which exists to prevent people from being fired for their sexual orientation. The want to give employers the power to fire you based on who you are or who you love. I say religious liberty does not extend to firing people based on who are they are.”

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) (Blade photo by Michael Key)

One of the Republican members of the committee asked to have entered into the record a letter from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressing displeasure over Congress holding a hearing that has framed religious liberty as an assault.

Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign and one of the witnesses at the hearing, told the Blade afterward the Republican preoccupation with religious liberty and disregard for LGBTQ rights was off-base.

“I think, unfortunately, a number of the Republican Congress members today really misrepresented what religious liberty is,” Warbelow said. “Religious liberty, it means an ability for people to hold their sincerely held religious belief, to practice their faith, but it doesn’t mean that you get to engage in discrimination.”

Among the witnesses were LGBTQ people who had suffered discrimination and came to the congressional hearing to tell their stories.

Evan Minton, a transgender resident of Livermore, Calif., told the story of going to the Mercy San Juan Medical Center in the Dignity Health chain for a hysterectomy, then being told the surgery was cancelled because it was related to gender transition.

“I was fortunate in that I was able to undergo a hysterectomy at a different hospital,” Minton said. “But the experience was scarring. I had no idea prior to my hysterectomy that my local community hospital was a Catholic hospital, or that they would argue that religious doctrine permits them to prevent doctors from providing patients with medically necessary care just because those patents are transgender.”

The experience was so degrading, Minton said, he refused to return afterward when he had a medical emergency and needed to remove his catheter and needed assistance when his pharmacist accidentally gave him a drug overdose.

“I needed to go to the emergency room,” Minton said. “In my drug stupor and even in my inability to talk, I was able to make out the sound, ‘No. Not that.’ And they took me to an emergency room farther away.”

Ernesto Olivares, a gay man who lives in San Antonio, Texas, recounted the bullying and harassment he encountered as a youth growing up in the foster care system.

“I remember one day, we were getting ready to go on a family vacation and I went to grab my bag, the big bright blue one they give us to put all our things in when it’s time to move placements,” Olivares said. “Someone had scratched out my name and written ‘faggot’ in its place. I cried and kept it to myself until we got back from vacation.”

Olivares said he told his therapist about the incident, and even though he asked her not to tell his foster parents, she told anyway. Even though he showed them the tag as proof, they denied anyone in the house would do that and nothing was ever done about that incident.

A key focus of the hearing was the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, federal legislation introduced by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) that would prohibit adoption agencies from discriminating LGBTQ families in child placement or discrimination against LGBTQ children, such as forcing them to undergo widely discredited conversion therapy.

Championing the legislation was Rev. Stan Sloan, an Episcopal priest and CEO of the pro-LGBT Family Equality Council, who said the bill was needed to ensure children in adoption agencies and foster care have access to families.

“There are currently over 440,000 children in our child welfare system,” Sloan said. “Over a quarter of those children are able to be adopted at this moment, and yet over 20,000 of those kids will graduate out of the system this year alone without ever finding parents.”

Sloan said LGBTQ people in America are seven times more likely to become foster parents or adopt a child, and yet 11 states, most recently Tennessee, now have laws on books permitting adoption agencies to refuse placement to LGBTQ families.

The Every Child Deserves a Family Act, Sloan said, would “overturn those bad laws nationwide, and if you care about kids in need you will support that act.”

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), another openly gay member of Congress, testified before the committee as a witness in favor of same-sex adoption by telling the story of raising children with his husband.

“When you allow people to discriminate against those couples, you deprive children of good moms, dads, families who are going to love them, and you dress it up as religious liberty, you simply sanction discrimination and deprive those children of a home they deserve,” Maloney said.

At the opposite end of that legislation is the Child Welfare Inclusion Act, legislation Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) promoted as a witness during the hearing that would prohibit adverse action against child welfare agencies for declining to provide services based on religious beliefs, such as declining placement into LGBTQ families.

“The faith community has deeply held religious beliefs,” Kelly said. “The LGBTQ community has deeply held beliefs. We do not discriminate against those beliefs, and we say if that’s what you choose, that is fine. All we ask is that we don’t discriminate against somebody…because they don’t hold those same beliefs.”

Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a member of committee, spoke out against the use religious belief to justify bias against anti-LGBTQ people, saying that offends her as a woman of faith.

“It is very difficult to sit here and listen to arguments in the long history in this country of using scripture and weaponizing it and using scripture to justify bigotry,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “White supremacists have done it, those who justified slavery did it, those who fought against integration and we’re seeing it today.”

The title of the hearing was the Trump’s administration using religious liberty to assault LGBTQ rights, but no representative of the White House was present before the hearing. A committee spokesperson didn’t respond to the Blade’s request to comment on whether the Trump administration was invited to send a witness. The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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