Sociology, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Law & Social Inquiry, 2023



Copyright © 2023 Kazyak, Burke, Behrendt, & Oliver. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Bar Foundation. Used by permission.


In this article, we examine how courts make decisions in religious exemption cases that implicate LGBT rights in a wide range of contexts including education, employment, and medical care. Through an in-depth qualitative analysis of 50 federal cases decided between 1990 and 2020, we demonstrate a shift in how anti-LGBT sentiment is expressed by parties bringing religion-based claims—from a broad condemnation of LGBT identity to a narrow condemnation of same-sex marriage—and find that courts are more likely to rule in favor of the latter. We show how courts construct competing understandings of harm and religious freedom depending on the context of the case and whether the setting is deemed public or private. Our analyses shed light on the shifting and competing meanings about religion, sexuality, and public life in the United States.