Richard Garnett, a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School, disagreed with the fund's claims that religious freedom legal accommodations and exemptions are illegitimate. He said this claim is "inconsistent with our history and with our longstanding commitment to religious liberty as our 'first freedom.'
"Reasonable exemptions do not 'undermine fundamental rights and liberties,' they protect and promote them," he told CNA.
"Unfortunately, there are powerful and well-funded interests who, with broad support in the academy and in media, have been working hard to associate our 'first freedom' with discrimination and prejudice," Garnett said.
He reflected on the state of religious freedom advocacy.
"Proponents of religious freedom, broadly and generously understood, will need to work hard to remind our fellow citizens that religious liberty – which has to mean religious liberty for all, and not just for 'people like us' – is itself a fundamental human right, and a protection for democracy," he said. "And, of course, to make religious freedom more appealing, it is important that religious-freedom proponents conduct their efforts in a civil, charitable, and inviting way."
For Garnett, the fund's rhetoric about discrimination concerns did not accurately represent the current state of the law.
"In fact, only a tiny number of religious-exemptions claims involve antidiscrimination laws and these claims almost always fail," he said. "The claim that religious-liberty laws undermine important anti-discrimination protections in the marketplace, the workplace, or in public accommodations is false.
"Instead, what these laws do is call for sensible accommodations for religious conscience, in cases where the accommodations will not undermine compelling public interests. These laws call for a balance, not a blank check."
Religious freedom protections have become more controversial in recent decades. In 2012, the Obama administration attempted to mandate that all employers, including religious employers, cover sterilization and contraceptive drugs, including drugs that can cause abortions. The mandate burdened many Catholic dioceses and organizations, including EWTN Global Catholic Network, and was only changed by a Trump administration action earlier this year.
There is also an ongoing push in some states to require insurance coverage of abortions, and some medical professionals and hospitals have faced pressure to cooperate in providing abortions.
Garnett thought abortion would be a prime focus of the Proteus funding network.
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"My sense is that what efforts like the Proteus Fund are really aimed at is undermining the longstanding protections in American law for religious health care workers and institutions who cannot in conscience participate in abortions," he said. "These protections are falsely labeled as 'discriminatory' when, in fact, they reflect the commonsense notion that it would be deeply unjust to require, as a condition of working as a healer, a pro-life medical professional to participate in a procedure she believes to be gravely wrong."
Some Christian adoption agencies have been forced to close because placing children with same-sex couples violates their religious convictions. There is an ongoing debate over whether small businesses in the marriage industry must cater to same-sex ceremonies if they have religious objections to them.
Ryan T. Anderson, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and co-author of "Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination," reflected on the current situation.
"Anti-gay and anti-transgender bigotry exists and should be condemned," he told CNA. "But support for marriage as the union of husband and wife isn't anti-gay. Nor is the conviction that sex is a biological reality anti-transgender.
"Just as we've combatted sexism without treating pro-life medicine as sexist, any public policy necessary to help people who identify as LGBT meet their needs should be crafted so as to respect the consciences of reasonable people, acting on good-faith beliefs about marriage and gender identity," said Anderson. "Not every disagreement is discrimination. And our law shouldn't suppose otherwise."
'We're going to punish the wicked'