New Report Highlights Dangers of Religious Exemption Laws for LGBT Elders

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The Movement Advancement Project (MAP), the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) at Columbia Law School, and SAGE, the nation’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBT elders, released a new report, Dignity Denied: Religious Exemptions and LGBT Elder Services. To download the report, visit http://www.lgbtmap.org/dignity-denied-lgbt-older-adults.

The report highlights the unique ways in which lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) elders are harmed by a growing number of laws and policies aimed at exempting religious organizations and individuals from following nondiscrimination and civil rights laws and policies.

By 2050, the number of people older than 65 will double to 83.7 million, and there are currently more than 2.7 million LGBT adults who are 50 years or older living across the country. LGBT elders face unique challenges to successful aging stemming from current and past structural and legal discrimination because of their sexual orientation, their gender identity, their age, and other factors like race. These risk factors are exacerbated by recent efforts at the local, state, and federal levels to allow those with religious or moral objections to be exempt from nondiscrimination laws, leaving LGBT older adults vulnerable to increased risk for discrimination and mistreatment.

According to the report released by MAP, PRPCP at Columbia Law School, and SAGE, religiously affiliated organizations provide a majority of the services LGBT elders rely on for their most basic needs. LGBT older adults, like many older Americans in the United States, access a network of service providers for health care, community programming and congregate meals, food and income assistance, and housing, ranging from independent living to skilled in-home nursing. Approximately 85% of nonprofit continuing-care retirement communities are affiliated with a religion. Religiously affiliated facilities also provide the greatest number of affordable housing units that serve low-income seniors. Finally, 14% of hospitals in the United States are religiously affiliated, accounting for 17% of all the country’s hospital beds.

While many of these facilities provide quality care for millions of older adults, there exists a coordinated nationwide effort to pass religious exemption laws and policies, and file lawsuits that would allow individuals, businesses, and even government contractors and grantees to use religion as a basis for discriminating against a range of communities, including LGBT elders.

Dignity Denied: Religious Exemptions and LGBT Elder Services outlines myriad federal and state efforts to allow individuals, businesses, and organizations to opt out of following nondiscrimination laws as long as they cite a religious objection. While most providers will do the right thing when it comes to serving their clients, some will only do so when required by law. The report concludes that because so many service providers are religiously affiliated, these laws pose a considerable threat to the health and well-being of LGBT older adults.

In conjunction with the release of the report, a panel discussion was held on Friday, December 15, at Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University featuring speakers from Center for Faith and Community Partnerships, The LGBT & HIV Project, American Civil Liberties Union, The Movement Advancement Project, The New Jewish Home, New York City Commission on Human Rights, Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, Columbia Law School, the Union Theological Seminary, and SAGE.

This report and the amicus brief SAGE filed in the Masterpiece Cake case clearly demonstrate that personal religious beliefs should never be a license to discriminate against LGBT people or anybody else,” said Michael Adams, CEO of SAGE. “That’s why we are bringing together aging experts, religious leaders, and our elders to expose the dangers that so-called religious exemptions pose for LGBT elders who need care and services. We must not allow the door of a nursing home or other critical care provider to slam in LGBT elders’ faces just because of who they are or who they love.”

“This important report reveals the many ways in which the privatization of elder services, largely to conservative religiously affiliated providers, leaves LGBT older adults no choice but to obtain care in facilities that do not welcome them,” said Katherine Franke, Sulzbacher Professor of Law, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Faculty Director of PRPCP at Columbia University. “The many LGBT elders who are adherents of faith-based traditions themselves suffer a special indignity when they are forced to seek care in settings that deny the dignity of both their LGBT identity and their faith-based beliefs.”

“LGBT older adults already are more likely to be isolated and vulnerable. It is unconscionable that state and federal governments are working to allow providers to deny critical health care services and vital social supports to LGBT older adults simply because of who they are,” said Ineke Mushovic, executive director of the Movement Advancement Project. “Imagine how much harder it would be to reach out for help if you knew the organizations that were supposed to help you could legally reject you, and the government would back them up.”

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The Movement Advancement Project (MAP) is an independent think tank that provides rigorous research, insight, and analysis that help speed equality for LGBT people. MAP works collaboratively with LGBT organizations, advocates and funders, providing information, analysis and resources that help coordinate and strengthen efforts for maximum impact. MAP’s policy research informs the public and policymakers about the legal and policy needs of LGBT people and their families.  Learn more at www.lgbtmap.org.

PRPCP at Columbia Law School’s mission is to bring legal academic expertise to bear on the multiple contexts in which religious liberty rights conflict with or undermine other fundamental rights to equality and liberty. We undertake approaches to the developing law of religion that both respects the importance of religious liberty and recognizes the ways in which too broad an accommodation of these rights threatens Establishment Clause violations and can unsettle a proper balance with other competing fundamental rights. Our work takes the form of legal research and scholarship, public policy interventions, advocacy support, and academic and media publications.

SAGE is the country's largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) older adults. Founded in 1978 and headquartered in New York City, SAGE is a national organization that offers supportive services and consumer resources to LGBT older adults and their caregivers, advocates for public policy changes that address the needs of LGBT older people, provides education and technical assistance for aging providers and LGBT organizations through its National Resource Center on LGBT Aging, and cultural competence training through SAGECare. Headquartered in New York City, with staff across the country, SAGE also coordinates a growing network of affiliates in the United States. Learn more at sageusa.org.

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