At the Intersection of Transgender Advocacy and Religious Freedom

Legislative Assistant Director Dena Sher (second left) at the Transgender Law Institute panel. Photo courtesy of   @transcendlegal

Legislative Assistant Director Dena Sher (second left) at the Transgender Law Institute panel. Photo courtesy of @transcendlegal

"Religious freedom” is a loaded term for many people right now. But on Saturday, as a panelist at the Transgender Law Institute at the National LGBT Bar Association’s annual Lavender Law, I got to explain why real religious freedom is worth fighting for—for all of us. We all have the right to believe (or not) as we see fit. And we have the right to act on our beliefs— so long as we don’t harm or discriminate against others. 

The panel focused on how AU’s work to protect real freedom of religion and belief—as well as others’ work to fight discrimination in the sharing economy, advance immigration reform, and ensure sexual and reproductive health equity— intersect with transgender advocacy. 

For decades, AU has fought those who seek to misuse religious liberty, standing up to those who seek to justify discrimination under the guise of religion. We cannot allow people who are unwilling to accept the equality advances in the reproductive rights and LGBT movements want to use their religious beliefs to harm others. This includes using religion as an excuse to deny healthcare, refuse to provide services, and disobey laws protecting Americans from discrimination and ensuring access to healthcare. Even back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, we were concerned with laws that barred doctors from discussing contraception with their patients.  The fights continue; for example, we:

  • Represent students in one of the many cases challenging the contraception coverage rule and the accommodation for nonprofits, which is the only case where women whose coverage is at risk are parties to the case.
  • Joined the coalition fighting the ballot initiative to overturn Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance.
  • Helped lead an effort that resulted in the Do No Harm Act, a bill that will clarify that RFRA cannot be used to harm others while, at the same time, preserving its power to protect religious liberty.

Then there’s our work in public schools, including, to abolish coach-led prayers and the teaching of junk science (so-called intelligent design or creationism), and to stop bills that would create private school voucher programs—schools that may teach anti-LGBT views or discriminate against LGBT students. All of these things harm religious liberty— and signal to those who share the beliefs pushed by the schools that they are insiders. And that everyone else— a student who is a religious minority or who is transgender, for example— is an outsider. When schools promote religion, it can further harm students who may already feel vulnerable.

As transgender people gain more legal protections, we know there will be ever more attempts to marginalize them and to undermine these laws and policies. We will stand with the community and lend our expertise to the fight.

I was honored to join Seth Marnin from the Anti-Defamation League, Jiny Kim from Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Norrinda Hayat from UDC Law School, Greisa Martinez from United We Dream, Candace Gibson from National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, and everyone attending the Transgender Law Institute for this inspiring discussion.