What is Protect Thy Neighbor?

Americans United for Separation of Church and State launched Protect Thy Neighbor because we are seeing more and more attempts to use religion to discriminate and deny people their rights. For years we have been working in the courts, legislatures, and on the ground to oppose these attempts to abuse religious freedom. With Protect Thy Neighbor, we are devoting even more resources to win this fight. We are expanding our work in the state legislatures, Congress, and the courts so that no one is allowed to use religion as an excuse to refuse you service, deny you healthcare, or threaten your safety.

How are our neighbors being harmed?

Individuals, religious organizations, and even for-profit corporations are harming others in the name of religion. Sometimes they refuse to serve certain customers, other times they refuse to provide someone with medical care, and yet other times they refuse to follow nondiscrimination laws. Examples from around the country abound, including:

Protect Thy Neighbor is committed to fighting these discriminatory refusals—and many others—to ensure that all Americans are treated equally and fairly.

Is there legislation pending that would allow harm in the name of religion?

Unfortunately, there have been many bills that would allow discrimination and harm in the name of religion. These include bills that would allow medical professionals to refuse to provide medical care, state-funded foster care agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples even if it would be in the best interest of the child, and state officials to refuse to grant marriage licenses. There are also general laws, often known as RFRAs, that are now being enacted with the aim of permitting discrimination and the denial of healthcare.

What is RFRA?

The federal RFRA (short for “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”) was passed by Congress in 1993 with the goal of protecting religious liberty, and especially the liberty of religious minorities. But in the more than two decades since it passed, RFRA has been used in ways its original proponents never imagined.

RFRA was meant to be a shield to safeguard religious freedom, not a sword to harm others. It  was supposed to provide relief in situations where, for example, a Sikh student was prohibited from wearing a turban at a school that bans head gear, a prisoner was denied the right to attend religious services, or a Jewish government worker was refused time off for Rosh Hashanah. It was never meant to let individuals—let alone for-profit corporations—harm and discriminate against others. 

Since it passed, many have attempted to use RFRA to trump nondiscrimination, health, and safety laws. Indeed, attempts to pass new RFRAs in the states are now accompanied by anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and statements touting RFRA as a tool to take away other people’s rights.

If there is a federal RFRA, why are states passing state RFRAs?

Congress originally intended for RFRA to apply to both the federal government and the states. In City of Boerne v. Flores, however, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution did not allow the application of RFRA to the states. The federal RFRA, therefore, applies only to the federal government, the District of Columbia, and federal territories such as Puerto Rico and Guam.

After City of Boerne, all eyes turned to the states, and several states passed their own RFRAs. 

At first, state supporters had the same good intentions as the original supporters of the federal RFRA. But today, supporters of state RFRAs make it clear that they intend to authorize discrimination against LGBTQ Americans and denial of reproductive healthcare to women. The RFRA that recently passed in Indiana illustrates their motives: the law was backed by anti-LGBTQ groups and its supporters described it as a way to ensure that businesses could discriminate against same-sex couples.

How are RFRAs being misused?

Many people and corporations are trying to use RFRAs in ways that harm other people.

Does the Supreme Court’s marriage decision affect clergy?

The decision is a win for clergy and their religious liberty. In Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution requires states to license and recognize the marriages of same-sex couples.

Notwithstanding the overheated rhetoric that followed the decision, no member of the clergy will be required to perform those or any other marriages. Clergy have the right under the Free Exercise Clause to decide whether or not to participate in any religious ceremonies, including marriage ceremonies.

At the same time, there are many members of clergy who welcome their new opportunity to officiate the weddings of same-sex couples whose marriages will be recognized by the state.

Nonetheless, lawmakers in states across the country are introducing and adopting Pastor Protection Acts. Generally, these bills clarify that the state may not require clergy or houses of worship to perform marriages or host marriage ceremonies that would conflict with their faith. These bills are unnecessary and do not change the current state of the law.

Protect Thy Neighbor scrutinizes these bills because they also introduce risk. In particular, they send the misleading message that clergy and houses of worship are currently under threat, they provoke anti-LGBT rhetoric, and they could be amended later on to go beyond clergy and codify discrimination against same-sex couples. 

I think I have been discriminated against. What should I do?

If you believe you have been denied service from a private business or public agency due to someone else's religious beliefs, you can let our lawyers know through our online form. 

Members of our Legal Department will then be in touch to ask further questions and to determine whether we can represent you. We will keep your identity strictly confidential-–we will not reveal your identity or share your contact information without your permission.

My state legislature is considering a bad bill.  What should I do?

Our legislative team is probably fighting that bill in your state. The Protect Thy Neighbor website should have information about the bill and tools that will help you fight back as well. Check Legislation Tracker frequently for up-to-date information about bills and action alerts, so that you know when to contact and what to say to your legislator. And if the bill you are worried about is not listed, feel free to contact us and ask about it.