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Basic civil rights are under attack in the courts, Perryman warns

by Jeff Brumley

The U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade in June 2022 demonstrates that LGBTQ equality and other basic civil rights are under threat by well-funded and highly coordinated political forces on the right, attorney and activist Skye Perryman said during a recent episode of George Mason’s “Good God” podcast.

The seriousness of threat was made all too clear when Justice Clarence Thomas urged the court to follow the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case ending federal abortion protections with a reconsideration of its 2015 Obergfell v. Hodges decision requiring all states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and which serves as the legal foundation of the Respect for Marriage Act signed into law by President Biden on Dec. 13.

“I’m hoping what Dobbs showed is that when you see language and opinion like we saw with Clarence Thomas, that we need to take that seriously,” said Perryman, president and CEO of Democracy Forward.

“And when you see websites and far-right legal organizations that have made it very clear that they do not support the equal dignity of people, that they believe that equality is optional and that some people just aren’t entitled to it because of their sexual orientation and their gender identity, that we need to take this very seriously.”

Perryman offered her comments during a December installment of the podcast hosted and moderated by Mason, the longtime former senior pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas and creator of Faith Commons. The discussion was the third of three “Good God” episodes with Perryman that covered the state of democracy, reproductive rights and LGBTQ marriage equality in the U.S.

Mason asked Perryman to gauge the potential impact of Thomas’ desire to reconsider the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. She said the remarks, which were made in Thomas’ concurring Dobbs opinion, may signal conservatives’ next target.

“We have seen, time and again, language from justices like Justice Thomas forecasting where this right-wing legal movement wants to go. And when you see that, we need to take it very seriously.”

“We have seen, time and again, language from justices like Justice Thomas forecasting where this right-wing legal movement wants to go.”

As the overturning of Roe v. Wade demonstrates, she continued, the far-right has been especially effective by working methodically toward its goals and by “luring” Americans into a false sense of security about democracy and their basic rights. “So, it’s incredibly important that people be vigilant wherever they are.”

Mason agreed that conservatives aren’t always transparent about their goals or motives. “We have cases of several of the Supreme Court justices who were very clear in their judicial hearings that they believed that this was precedent and that it should stand and that they had no intention of overturning Roe. And yet they did so.”

Fueling these movements is a legal strategy based on the presumption that all people are not created equal, Perryman added. “What is behind that is a well-funded special interest movement that has sought to push people to extreme positions, and I think we have to be on guard there.”

Mason noted that some right-wing faith groups claim the Respect for Marriage Act violates their religious liberties, despite the measure’s provision that people and institutions of faith are not required to recognize same-sex unions, or perform them.

Perryman said that’s acceptable as long as those groups do not also benefit from government funds and programs.

“You cannot force individual people not to be racist.”

“You cannot force individual people not to be racist,” she said. “You cannot force them not to be homophobic. You cannot force people not to be bigoted. We can’t control what people do. Where it becomes very concerning from a legal perspective, is when there are institutions that seek to benefit from federal funds … and then not wanting to abide by what we know are the rules” of a democracy.

Mason pointed to Baylor University’s handling of the LGTBQ issue on its campus. The Texas school, which has Baptist roots and remains affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, has resisted fully embracing LGBTQ students and faculty, while also seeking to be a Tier 1 research university to receive major federal research grants.

Perryman, a Baylor alumnus who has advocated for better treatment of LGBTQ people at her alma mater, said the school has made some progress, but not nearly enough. “When institutions say they are in it to do the right thing, we expect them to do the right thing.”

Behind such contradictions is a belief by some faith groups that society must conform to their religious standards, Mason said.

Perryman agreed and offered several examples. “There were a number of religious traditions, and still are, that don’t believe women should be equal. There were a number of religious traditions that were very clear in the Jim Crow South that they did not believe all people were equal. They thought white people were superior. And they sought to write this into their way of living based on what they said was a religious conviction.”

It’s an impulse that stretches far back, she said. “We cannot deny that this is a pattern that has appeared in American history, and it didn’t start with the fight for LGBTQ equity. We have seen people seek to use a particular religious perspective that is discriminatory and dehumanizing in order to try to make gains from a policy perspective, or to re-entrench a policy perspective that has marginalized people.”

It’s crucial to remember that American democracy is an ongoing process that seeks to build an increasingly tolerant society in which all people share fundamental rights, Perryman said.

“In all these civil rights battles, what we are talking about is the dignity of people and the right that people have to live in a society that recognizes that and does not draw distinctions because of the color of your skin, because of who you love, because of your sexual orientation, because of your gender identity — all of these things.”

Mason asked about Christians who claim not to oppose the rights of LGBTQ people, but express concern that marriage equality is moving too fast.

Perryman said many whites made similar arguments during the Civil Rights movement. But the truth is that many people are suffering greatly and need immediate relief. “When you are talking about people’s existence and the actual treatment of people, are we going to treat people as if everyone is equal? Are we depriving some of their dignity to privilege others?”

Granting all Americans marriage equality and other fundamental rights, she added, does not pose a real threat to religious conservatives. “It does not mean that everyone has to agree with it all the time, but it does mean there are some common rules in how we operate, and it does mean that all people are created equal.”