Old Habits Are Hard to Break: Anti-Equality Leaders’ Dishonest and Alarmist Attacks on the Respect for Marriage Act

The Mormon Church endorsed the Respect for Marriage Act, but Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) claimed it would lead to the destruction of religious liberty in America. (Image from appearance on Washington Watch with Tony Perkins, Nov. 16, 2022.


A bipartisan majority cleared the way this week for the U.S. Senate to consider legislation that would protect legal recognition for same-sex couples’ marriages even if the far-right Supreme Court majority overturns the court’s 2015 marriage equality ruling. ​And like clockwork, anti-LGBTQ activists put their fearmongering about the Respect for Marriage Act into high gear.

Before we dig into some of the dishonest and inflammatory claims about​ the proposed legislation from opponents of marriage equality, let’s acknowledge two truths.

First, the religious liberty protections in the compromise bill are strong enough to have earned the support of a dozen Republican senators and the socially conservative Mormon Church. Think about that when anti-equality politicians claim that the bill’s supporters are waging war on religious freedom.

Second, anti-LGBTQ​ leaders ​have sounded false alarms about equality legislation for decades—but their dire predictions about freedom disappearing as LGBTQ people make strides toward legal equality have failed to materialize.

Consider, for example, the frenzied opposition to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which passed Congress in 2009 and was signed into law by President Barack Obama. The legislation strengthened an existing federal hate crimes law by including crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

If the apocalyptic warnings from far-right religious and political leaders during debate on the bill had any grounding in truth, the years since then would have brought about the criminalization of Christianity, prisons filled with pastors who preached against homosexuality, and conservative Christians piled into boxcars and sent to concentration camps. Influential Christian nationalist “historian” and serial liar David Barton told a California church that sponsors of the hate crimes law—which explicitly targets violent crimes—wanted to make it a federal crime for preachers to read Bible verses denouncing homosexuality. Religious-right leaders and far-right members of Congress falsely claimed, without the slightest evidence, that the law would create legal protections for bestiality and pedophilia.

More than a decade later, of course, none of that has happened. No preachers were dragged from their pulpits. Far-right Christian leaders are still quite free to rage against legal equality for LGBTQ people, and political operatives are free to run political campaigns that smear us with dishonest propaganda. Freedom has survived, and the campaign against the federal hate crimes law has been exposed as a lie.

But old habits are hard to break, as the all-too-familiar rhetoric from religious-right leaders this week made clear:

  • In spite of the historic support for the Respect for Marriage Act from the Mormon Church, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah dismissed the bill’s religious liberty provisions, telling the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins that the legislation would lead to “the destruction of religious liberty in America.”
  • Sean Feucht, the missionary musician turned ​right-wing political activist, warned ​the church to “Prepare For Persecution!” and claimed that passage of the bill would signal “an attack on the church.”
  • Liberty Counsel, a religious-right legal group that branched out into anti-vaccine conspiracy mongering during the COVID-19 ​pandemic, may take the cake ​for most desperate-to-get-clicks claim that “This Depraved Law Would Allow Pedophiles to Marry Children.” ​That claim was given a boost by the Pentecostal-oriented media outlet Charisma.
  • Liberty University’s Standing for Freedom Center warned that the legislation “disrespects the religious liberties of millions of Americans who may face judicial assault if they refuse to oblige the left’s tyrannical narratives.” The Freedom Center’s Ryan Helfenbein retweeted its claim, adding his own warning that “We are opening the door for massive religious persecution on a scale never seen before in America.”
  • Concerned Women for America called it an “attack” on people “who affirm Biblical morality when it comes to marriage and sexuality.”
  • Pundit Todd Starnes denounced the Republican senators who “just declared war on the church” by voting to allow the bill to move forward, and he claimed that the bill would “put a target on every Christian church in America.”
  • Under the utterly false headline, “Mitt Romney pushes Polygamy on all 50 states, ”religious-right activist and former Colorado state legislator Gordon Klingenschmitt claimed that the bill would “legalize Polygamy, child-marriage, and Gay ‘Marriage’ in all 50 states.”

The Heritage Foundation, the granddaddy of right-wing “think tanks,” deserves special mention. Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts railed against the “betrayal” by the 12 Republican senators who voted to allow the bill to be considered, claiming the legislation “will weaponize the federal government against believers of every major religion.” In addition, the Heritage Foundation published a Twitter thread remarkable for its disingenuousness. It insists that the Obergefell decision and legal recognition of same-sex couples’ marriages are “not at risk.” In fact, the Heritage Foundation itself has explicitly called for the decision to be overturned and laid out a strategy for making it happen—and that was before Trump’s far-right justices joined the Supreme Court and Justice Clarence Thomas urged the Court to overturn the decision.

Even the American Family Association’s Tim Wildmon was more honest about the religious right’s intention of overturning Obergefell by using the same strategy they used to overturn Roe v. Wade—something he told supporters would be harder to accomplish if the Respect for Marriage Act became law. He urged activists to tell senators that “no compromise or amendment is acceptable.” Other parts of the AFA action alert echoed the religious right’s hyperbolic claims: “We Only Have 24 Hours Before Democrats Crush Religious Freedom,” it warned.

It’s important to note that the religious right’s claims about the Respect for Marriage Act are not only rejected by the Mormon Church. The law is backed by 40 religious organizations that represent millions of Americans from different faiths. A Thursday morning press conference supporting the legislation was co-sponsored by the Interfaith Alliance, Faithful America, Keshet, The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, United Church of Christ Justice and Local Church Ministries, National Council for Jewish Women, and Hindus for Human Rights, among others.

Moreover, opponents of marriage equality do not come close to speaking for most Americans, most people of faith, or even most Christians. A survey released earlier this year by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 68 percent of Americans support marriage equality, as do most white Catholics, white mainline Protestants, and majorities of Black, Hispanic, White, and multiracial Americans. Almost 80 percent of Americans, including about two-thirds of Republicans, support laws protecting LGBTQ people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations, and housing. About two-thirds of Americans oppose allowing business owners to refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people based on their religious beliefs.

President Biden praised this week’s action in the Senate and urged Congress to finalize the bill and send it to him to be signed into law; that is likely to take place shortly after the Thanksgiving recess.