Religious Exemption Laws Put LGBT Elders at Risk


At a time when LGBT older adults are at their most vulnerable and in need, religious exemption laws threaten to jeopardize their security and safety.

Take the case of Mary Walsh and Bev Nance who, like any other married couple, wanted to age together in their hometown of St. Louis. They did their research. They found a retirement community, visited several times, went through the application process, and cut a check for the $2,000 deposit. At the end, they were turned away at the door. Friendship Village Sunset Hills, a senior housing facility in their community, refused the couple because it followed the “Biblical definition” of marriage and “defined marriage as between a man and a woman.” Just a few weeks ago, the National Center for Lesbian Rights ( NCLR ), Relman, Dane & Colfax PLLC, and co-counsel filed a lawsuit on behalf of Mary and Bev.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration established the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division at the Department of Health & Human Services to shield medical providers who deny care based on religious or moral beliefs. The new division puts LGBT elders particularly at risk.

A recent policy report found that LGBT older adults, like many older Americans in the United States, rely on a network of service providers as they age—for community programming and congregate meals, for health care, and for housing ranging from independent living to skilled nursing. However, the vast majority of these services are offered by religiously affiliated organizations.

The report, Dignity Denied: Religious Exemption and LGBT Elder Services is by The Movement Advancement Project, SAGE and the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project ( PRPCP ) at Columbia Law School. The research finds that while many of these religiously affiliated facilities provide great care, there is a coordinated and on-going effort to pass religious exemption laws, issue executive orders and agency guidance, and to litigate court cases to allow individuals, businesses, and even government contractors and grantees to use religion to discriminate.

As you can imagine, these laws are particularly concerning for our elders who are already at higher risk of discrimination when accessing aging services and long-term care. A recent AARP survey found that roughly half of LGBT older people fear discrimination in health care as they age, while 34 percent of LGBT elders are concerned that they will have to hide their identity in order to access suitable housing. According to a national study released by the Equal Rights Center, 48 percent of same-sex couples experience discrimination when applying for senior housing.

It is more important than ever that advocates and allies fight against these concerted efforts across the country and by the Trump administration to create a religious license to discriminate. No one should worry about fear of rejection, discrimination, or unequal treatment when accessing services and housing. Stand with Mary and Bev and against these harmful religious exemptions.

This article originally appeared in Windy City Times on August 22, 2018.
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