Metro Weekly

Civil liberties groups address tension between religion and civil rights

Report offers recommendations for resolving conflicts related to LGBT rights, reproductive rights and religious appearance

Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law (Photo: Anon penpal, via Wikimedia Commons).

Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law (Photo: Anon penpal, via Wikimedia Commons).

A report issued on Monday by a coalition of civil liberties organizations outlines potential conflicts that can arise between religious freedom and a number of civil rights issues, including LGBT rights, reproductive rights and religious appearance.

The report, “Drawing the Line: Tackling Tensions Between Religious Freedom and Equality,” issued by the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO), was officially unveiled at a conference at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York on Monday evening. The conference primarily was focused on weighing the delicate balance between religion and issues of identity and equality.

“In many of our countries, our laws are changing to afford more people — LGBT people, women and minority groups — dignity and equality,” said Louise Melling, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one of the 11 member organizations that comprise INCLO. “That change is sometimes met with objections rooted in faith. This report looks at how these tensions play out in courtrooms around the world and makes recommendations for how we can move forward together from a rights-based perspective.”

The guiding principle adhered to in the report’s recommendations is that religious freedom means people have a right to their own beliefs. However, religious freedom does not give an individual the right to impose his or her views on others, discriminate against them or harm them. 

Among the specific recommendations included in the report is that government officials, such as county clerks who issue marriage licenses must “neutrally enforce and apply the laws.” That recommendation os a nod to the ongoing saga surrounding Kentucky clerk Kim Davis and her refusal to issue licenses to same-sex couples in Rowan County. Another would allow people to express their faith through their appearance, as in the case of a Muslim woman who chooses to wear a hijab. Other recommendations include assessing claims of religious freedom based on the sincerity of the belief, rather than its content; and prohibiting places of public accommodation from claiming a religious objection to justify the denial of services.

“Through the examination of a sampling of key cases, we strive in this report to articulate principles and recommendations that can guide advocates and policymakers,” INCLO writes in its introduction to the report. “We hope this report will prove helpful for those who wish to move towards a rights-based resolution of these debates.

“No report of this nature would be complete, however, without some caveats,” the report continues. “As we have noted, this report looks only at a modest set of the questions arising in the area of religious freedom and equal treatment. It does not deal with many of the life-and-death issues that too unfortunately mark these conflicts in some countries. The issues we address, however, are ones giving rise to some important trends in the law where we believe our analysis could be influential. Our sampling of cases is just that — a sample — and our recommendations a beginning.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at

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