On June 1, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a proclamation for Pride Month, acknowledging the human rights violations that LGBT people face worldwide. However, the International Religious Freedom Report for 2017 —an annual survey on the state of religious freedom in 195 countries released on May 28—offers a mixed bag for LGBT people at a time when religious liberty increasingly is used as a pretext to license discrimination in the United States. In the months ahead, the State Department should more forcefully promote an inclusive vision of religious liberty that all can enjoy.
In the aftermath of US marriage equality, the rhetoric of religious liberty increasingly has functioned as an excuse to refuse service to LGBT people, women, and others in the United States. Lawmakers have invoked religious freedom to justify discrimination in areas as diverse as employment, education, health care, housing and public accommodations. Similar campaigns pitting religious liberty against LGBT rights have begun abroad, including in debates over marriage equality in Australia and Romania.
Against this backdrop, LGBT advocates expressed concern when former Gov. Sam Brownback, who signed an executive order in Kansas allowing wedding vendors to discriminate against same-sex couples, became the US ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom. They were even more alarmed by the recent appointment of Tony Perkins—an activist who has called LGBT people “abnormal,” “evil” and “immoral” and regularly characterizes them as pedophiles—to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Unfortunately, many of this year’s country reports suggest that arguments pitting religious liberty against LGBT equality are surfacing in US foreign policy. The State Department’s reports on Bolivia, Canada, and the Philippines, respectively, emphasize that religious authorities opposed bills allowing transgender people to update their sex on documentation, protecting transgender youth in the child welfare system, and prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people.
For the United States to uncritically echo this opposition not only fails to consider whether these concerns are valid, but fails to appreciate the human rights violations that LGBT people experience in those countries.
In some cases, the State Department appears more concerned with the feelings of religious leaders than with rights and freedoms. The Seychelles report highlights religious authorities’ objections to the recent decriminalization of same-sex activity and opposition to a televised debate on LGBT rights. Instead of citing these views as religious liberty concerns, the State Department should see the moves in Seychelles as positive developments that further the rights of all.
Some of the country reports do give powerful examples of religion being used to target LGBT people. The report on Israel and the Golan Heights, for example, notes that ultra-Orthodox opponents threatened LGBT Pride parades with violence, and that many LGBT youths face family rejection. The reports document blasphemy and apostasy charges against LGBT advocates and allies in Greece and Sudan. They flag that men who have sex with men have been publicly caned under sharia law in Indonesia; that ISIS in Syria targets homosexuality; and that the Maldives, Mauritania, and Saudi Arabia criminalize it.
These are important examples of how religion can be misused. But what is missing is recognition that religion and sexuality need not be at odds—and that religious liberty and LGBT equality instead can go hand-in-hand.
Around the globe, LGBT people face restrictions on where and how they can practice their faith, imposed by state and religious authorities alike. In Indonesia, militants forced Shinta Ratri to close her Islamic school for transgender women. In Malaysia, state sharia laws prohibit transgender women from dressing according to their gender identity, and in Bangladesh, hijras are turned away from entering mosques. In Nigeria and Russia, laws against promoting homosexuality in public make it difficult for LGBT faith communities to operate.
In many countries, police have targeted private events they deem to be same-sex weddings, with participants rounded up and arrested — an issue the State Department raised in its report on religious freedom in Nigeria in 2015.
The report for 2017 makes little mention of attacks on LGBT people of faith. But for those who believe that religious freedom transcends sexuality or creed, these incidents should be cause for concern. LGBT people—like anyone else—should be able to freely practice their faith or to opt out of participating in dominant faith traditions. This inclusive understanding of religious freedom is much more compelling than an approach that pits religion and sexuality against each other.
As the State Department works to promote religious freedom, it should ensure that LGBT people, like others, are protected. At the release of this year’s report, Secretary Pompeo announced that the United States will host a ministerial meeting this summer on advancing religious freedom worldwide. The meeting offers a rare opportunity to set aside ideology and affirm a commitment to a religious liberty that transcends nationality, sexuality, and creed.
Instead of projecting domestic politics abroad, Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Brownback should seek common ground, invite LGBT people of faith to the table, and find ways to promote a religious liberty that everyone can equally enjoy.