Religious Freedom, Parents’ Rights, and Counter-Mobilization “After Marriage”

The recent extension to same-sex couples of the civil right to marry has been met with great alarm by right-wing religious groups, prompting renewed enthusiasm within the counter-movement against LGBTQ rights. “Religious Freedom Restoration” legislation has been introduced and/or tested via lawsuits in multiple states: according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 17 states introduced legislation in 2015 that would create or amend a currently existing state religious freedom law. From Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk whose refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples captivated the national media in the weeks and months following the Supreme Court’s marriage decision, to now-commonplace stories about bakers, florists, and other wedding vendors refusing to provide goods and services for same-sex weddings, a national conversation – and corresponding legal actions – are emerging about the role of religious freedom in Americans’ ability to resist the increasing visibility and legal rights of LGBTQ individuals.

In this academic presentation, I argue that the reaches of this religious freedom discourse extend far beyond the civil and commercial arenas that have been the subject of numerous news reports, op-eds, and think pieces. Drawing on data from my research on the homeschooling movement in Texas, I argue that, within the larger discourse about religious freedom laws exists another discourse: that of parents’ rights. Within the fundamentalist Christian wing of the homeschooling movement, parents’ rights to home educate their children are understood as Constitutional rights, tied to rights to privacy, but upheld particularly through the discourse of religious freedom. In particular, I detail how fundamentalist Christian homeschoolers see their parenting and educational practices as part of a bigger battle for control of American culture, with an emphasis on the role of sexuality in the broader culture. A crucial piece of these parents’ opposition to same-sex marriage is the argument that normalizing same-sex marriage results in normalizing homosexuality in public school curricula. These parents see their right to home educate their children as but one piece of a more fundamental set of rights – parents’ rights to decide the conditions of their children’s upbringing and to control their children’s exposure to certain ideas and experiences. In other words, they argue that part of protecting religious freedom is protecting the rights of parents to pass down their religious beliefs to their children. Thus, parents’ rights – as religious rights – are framed as being incompatible with LGBTQ rights, bringing into stark relief the limitations of relying on rights-based discourses in LGBTQ activism.

This presentation demonstrates the reach of the religious freedom argument by showing how it is extended beyond its more commonly targeted commercial and civil arenas, into the institutional arenas of education and the family. I argue that understanding this perspective is crucial for understanding – and combatting – the counter-movement against LGBTQ rights in the United States. In this way, this presentation will speak to both scholars and activists, addressing the core concerns of this conference by highlighting the importance and influence of counter-mobilization in shaping LGBTQ politics and scholarship “after marriage.”


Part of panel Religion, Conflict, and Same-Sex Marriage
October 1, 2016, 14:30–16:15