Minnesota Reformer: Legislature restores exemption allowing religious groups to discriminate based on gender identity

DFL changes course on issue that prompted heated, angry debates earlier this session

The Minnesota Legislature voted Tuesday to restore an exemption in state law protecting religious organizations and schools against claims of gender identity-based discrimination.

Last year, lawmakers modernized definitions in the Minnesota Human Rights Act prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. But no corresponding religious exemption was added for gender identity, so current law allows a church to discriminate against a gay applicant but not a trans applicant. 

Some Republican lawmakers assumed it was an oversight, and introduced bills and amendments restoring the exemption, but earlier in the session, the majority Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party largely ignored their pleas, leading to passionate, angry debates in committee hearings.

Numerous religious groups pushed for what they said was religious freedom protected by the state and federal constitutions, arguing they should be able to employ people who adhere to their religious beliefs without the threat of civil rights litigation. 

Republicans mobilized, calling it an “unprecedented attack” on religious autonomy.

But Tuesday, the Senate unanimously approved a bill reinstating the religious exemption. 

True North Legal, which represents religious groups, had already threatened litigation, noting the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that the government cannot control religious schools’ hiring decisions.


The House followed suit later Tuesday, and now the bill heads to Gov. Tim Walz’s desk. 

It was a stunning turnabout from the DFL reaction earlier this session. 

When Rep. Harry Niska, R-Ramsey, suggested in a late February committee hearing that the DFL inadvertently forgot to include the religious exemption last session, committee chair Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, corrected him, saying, “It was not an oversight.”


Minnesota’s first out trans lawmaker, Rep. Leigh Finke, DFL-St. Paul, said during the hearing that the state took big steps toward protecting people’s rights last year — opening its doors as a refuge for transgender people — and said lawmakers weren’t about to allow discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

Niska released a statement saying it’s not the language he originally proposed, but achieves his goal of retaining a broad statutory exemption for both sexual orientation and gender. 


Read the full story at Minnesota Reformer.

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