Conservative media have been quick to use "religious liberty" as an excuse for forgiving all kinds of homophobic rhetoric in the public square. But an employment discrimination complaint against Ford Motor Co. reveals the ugly logical conclusion of the right's conflation of Christianity and anti-gay bigotry.
Conservative media have worked to conflate blatant homophobia and mainstream Christianity, usually in order to defend prominent right-wing homophobes. For instance, Fox News figures rallied to the defense of the Benham brothers, whose HGTV reality show was canceled in May after their history of bigotry was exposed. Fox host Megyn Kelly claimed that while "gay rights are more and more protected in this country," the same didn't hold for "Christian beliefs and Christian rights." Similarly, Sean Hannity deflected criticism of the homophobia expressed by Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson, excusing it as nothing more than "old-fashioned, traditional Christian sentiment and values."
In keeping with that reasoning, a Michigan man named Thomas Banks filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on January 28 against his former employer, Ford. Banks was fired in August after he allegedly violated Ford's anti-harassment policy. According to the EEOC complaint, Banks responded negatively to a shared online article outlining Ford's LGBT-inclusiveness:
For this Ford Motor should be thoroughly ashamed. Endorsing and promoting sodomy is of benefit to no one. This topic is disruptive to the workplace and is an assault on Christians and morality, as well as antithetical to our design and our survival. Immoral sexual conduct should not be a topic for an automotive manufacturer to endorse or promote. And yes - this is historic - but not in a good way. Never in the history of mankind has a culture survived that promotes sodomy. Heterosexual behavior creates life - homosexual behavior leads to death.
Banks is being represented by the anti-LGBT legal group Liberty Institute, which claims that Ford Motor Co. violated Bank's religious liberty by punishing him for his "sincerely held religious beliefs." The Liberty Institute actually cites Banks' "sincerely held religious beliefs" seven times in the first two paragraphs of its complaint:
Banks' story is similar to that of Kelvin Cochran, the Atlanta Fire Chief who was fired after self-publishing a book that called homosexuality a "perversion." Just last month, conservative media rushed to Cochran's defense, decrying the city's alleged religious persecution.
By the same token, attempts to protect LGBT people from discrimination and harassment are often smeared as attacks on Christianity and threats to religious freedom. The blurred line between homophobia and religious belief is a popular and pervasive theme in conservative attacks on non-discrimination laws. The Liberty Institute, which is representing Banks, has been actively involved in working to repeal local non-discrimination ordinances using precisely this logic. The group describes itself as "the largest legal organization dedicated solely to defending and restoring religious liberty in America."
It remains to be seen whether Banks' story will become another rallying cry for "religious liberty" apologists in conservative media, but his EEOC complaint highlights the ugly consequences of the right's obsession with excusing homophobia. "Homosexual behavior leads to death" is not a statement of religious belief - it's an inflammatory and hateful attack on gay people, and it's a sentiment that even religious conservatives would be wise not to distance themselves from.