Prominent LGBT Rights Attorney Educates Students on "Religious Liberty" Case Before Supreme Court

One year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges affirmed same-sex couples’ right to marry, the nation’s highest court is set to hear arguments in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley, a case that underscores how religious liberty arguments, arising in the wake of Obergefell, conflict with LGBT rights.

Susan Sommer, Lambda Legal’s director of constitutional litigation, informed Columbia Law School students about her organization’s efforts to protect LGBT rights in both cases during an Oct. 12 lunchtime talk hosted by the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project and moderated by Professor Katherine Franke. Sommer spearheaded Lambda’s efforts in Henry v. Hodges, an Ohio marriage case that later merged with Obergefell when it reached the Supreme Court, and her organization has submitted an amicus brief in Trinity Lutheran, arguing Missouri’s refusal to grant state funding to the church is constitutional.

Though Trinity Lutheran is a case focused on a seemingly specific issue—whether or not a state should provide money to a Christian school for secular purposes, like improving playground equipment—the case’s outcome could have far-reaching consequences.

“This is about more than little kids who skinned their knees,” Sommer explained to students. Rather, it is an attempt by the Alliance Defending Freedom, and others supporting anti-LGBT legislation, to strike at the “no aid to religion” provision in Missouri’s state constitution, which prohibits government funding of religious schools and faith-based social services, she continued.

“Make no mistake, it’s no coincidence the Alliance Defending Freedom is in Missouri and pursuing the lawsuit, because they see this as a major wedge to get into the Supreme Court and undo bulwarks against the kind of discrimination LGBT people encounter,” added Sommer, who, in her capacity with Lambda—the nation’s oldest and largest legal group committed to LGBT equality—has litigated cases across the country in which religious organizations took discriminatory stances based on sexual orientation and gender identity. 

The Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project has contributed legal research and scholarship, public policy interventions, and advocacy support to issues and cases similar to Trinity Lutheran, where religious liberty rights conflicted with or undermined other fundamental rights to liberty and equality.

Sommer praised the project’s work on religious freedom litigation, most notably its memorandum on Mississippi House Bill 1523, a law that sought to provide religious exemptions for discrimination against LGBT people. This summer, Franke testified in a Pennsylvania state senate hearing that added protections for the state’s LGBT workers did not necessitate added protections for religious freedom.

No-aid provisions are “a speedbump against faith-based organizations occupying the private sector,” said Franke, an Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law and director of the Law School’s Center on Gender and Sexuality Law.

Since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, every subsequent administration has made affirmative efforts to create faith-based programs for drug addicts, homeless youth, children in foster care, and migrants entering the U.S., among other initiatives, Franke noted. These programs are often run by Christian organizations that discriminate against LGBT people and oppose reproductive rights.

More than ever, religion is a resistance point for the fundamental shift in LGBT rights, Sommer stated, and as such, Lambda has its “antenna up” over the use of religious objections to lash back at hard won LGBT rights. 

“What we’ve seen is a counter narrative that people of faith are the victims here, when LGBT people get access to very basic civil rights that have been denied them,” Sommer said.

Sommer made clear that Lambda is not “anti-religion,” and highlighted that many of its employees have strong personal beliefs and practices.

“The bottom line for us is, when it comes to using government funds and engaging in the public sphere and marketplace, that’s where non-discrimination principles are going to trump private religious beliefs,” Sommer added.

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Posted October 18, 2016