Legendary LGBT legal icon Mary Bonauto said today that the "gaping" religious exemptions in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act are part of a broader effort to preserve homophobia as an acceptable prejudice in law and society under the guise of "religious liberty."
Bonauto, who is widely regarded as a foundational figure -- and even the "Thurgood Marshall" -- of the marriage equality movement, made the remarks this afternoon during a plenary panel at the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy's national convention in Washington, D.C.
The panel, called "Reflections on Windsor," featured Bonauto; Pamela Karlan, U.S. Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division and the primary author of Justice Harry Blackmun's dissent in Bowers v. Hardwick; and Roberta Kaplan, the attorney who successfully argued Edie Windsor's DOMA challenge before the Supreme Court and whose victory set off the tsunami of freedom-to-marry court rulings that have swept across the country since.
The panelists, all three of whom worked on the Windsor case, discussed their experiences, the impact of the Supreme Court's landmark ruling, and what they think are the next major battles in the LGBT civil rights movement. On that final point, Bonauto responded thusly:
"What I see ahead, of course -- it's on us, it's been on us, and it's just becoming more and more of a prominent issue ...this 'religious liberty' narrative is really dangerous.
"And you see it right now in the current version of the Employment Non-Discrimination, a sort of gaping religious exemption, you see it in what happened in Arizona and Mississippi and has been attempted actually around the nation, to re-do these state RFRAs [Religious Freedom Restoration Acts] to really provide a license to discriminate, and I think you can easily project out in 10, 15, and 20 years this long-term campaign, just like there's been a long-term campaign to undermine Roe, just like there's been a long-term campaign to undermine voting rights and so on, affirmative action, all kinds of things.
"You'll see them wearing away, so that again, people's citizenship, freedoms, and real opportunities are being compromised."
Bonauto's comments come as many LGBT advocates are becoming increasingly critical of the religious exemptions in the current version of ENDA, which they describe as troubling and unprecedented. The National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Transgender Law Center, Equality New Mexico, and GetEQUAL have all withdrawn their support for the bill as it currently stands, while groups like Freedom to Marry, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and the American Civil Liberties Union continue to support the bill despite expressing "grave concerns" about the religious exemption language.
Although Bonauto called ENDA's religious exemptions "gaping" and said they could compromise LGBT people's "citizenship, freedoms, and real opportunities," she did not explicitly state whether or not she supports the current version of the bill.