Sociology, Department of



Emily Kazyak

Date of this Version



Published in Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 2023



Copyright © 2023 Kazyak, Burke, Oliver, & Behrendt, under exclusive license to Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature. Used by permission.


Introduction In this manuscript, we analyze 62 US federal cases from 1990 to 2020 that implicate the issue of religious freedom and LGBT rights. Popular and scholarly commentary on the advancement of LGBT rights in the twenty-first century has speculated a rise in religious exemption litigation as a strategy to oppose such rights. Yet, we lack empirical data to confirm or reject this assumption and to understand patterns and trends within such cases.

Methods We perform bivariate analyses to examine trends with regard to how the court rules on these cases.

Results Our findings show that religious litigants are not very successful in court. Our findings also illustrate the following trends: religious litigants who are anti-LGBT experience more success in the courts compared to those who are pro-LGBT; courts are more likely to rule in favor of religious litigants if they are businesses and if cases involve wedding-related services or adoption/foster care; and cases involving the First Amendment Free Speech clause are most likely to succeed.

Conclusions These results suggest that federal courts are fairly consistent in not ruling in favor of religious-based legal claims. Yet, the cases that are successful reflect how the law upholds Christian hegemonic understandings of gender and sexuality.

Policy Implications Given that the Supreme Court has yet to provide a definitive answer to whether exemptions must be granted to religious actors opposed to non-discrimination laws related to sexual orientation and gender identity, this question will likely continue to be contested in American politics and future lawsuits.