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Religious freedom laws may be linked to poorer self-reported health among sexual minorities

Religious freedom laws may be linked to poorer self-reported health among people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or are unsure of their sexual orientation.

Photo by Jason Betz from Unsplash.com

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Religious freedom laws may be linked to poorer self-reported health among people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or are unsure of their sexual orientation – a group known as sexual minorities.

This is according to an analysis led by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health’s Center for LGBT Health Research. The study, published online in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, focused on Indiana in the US. It found that after the passage in Indiana of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 2015, sexual minorities increasingly reported poor health on a national survey. Such laws are often invoked by courts to support those who want to deny services to members of particular groups due to conflicts with their personal religious beliefs.

In the Philippines, for instance – and to contextualize – the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has been one of the staunchest opponents of passing an anti-discrimination law that will protect the human rights of LGBTQI people.

In 2015, it actually gave a “partial support” to the passage of an anti-discrimination bill (ADB). However, this support is limited by CBCP’s desire for it to still be allowed to discriminate, particularly in: 1) determining who should be admitted to priestly or religious formation, who should be ordained and received into Holy Order, or who should be professed as members of religious communities and orders; and 2) for Catholic schools to be allowed to discriminate on who they can admit or retain.

The CBCP also stressed its “love the sinner, hate the sin” position by claiming its “disapproval of homosexual acts (that) remains part of the Church’s moral teaching.”

In the aforementioned American study, the researchers – which included John R. Blosnich, Ph.D., M.P.H., Robert W.S. Coulter, Ph.D., M.P.H., Jordan M. Sang, M.P.H., and Christina Mair, Ph.D. – used data from 21 states that participated in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2015 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey. Across the participating states, the team focused on the health of the nearly 5,000 participants who identified as sexual minorities. In particular, the team analyzed the number of “unhealthy days,” which the CDC characterized as the total number of days in the past 30 that people reported that their physical and mental health were not good.

The researchers found that, among residents of the 21 states, only Indiana saw a significant increase in the percent of sexual minority people reporting unhealthy days over the course of 2015. In the first quarter of the year, 24.5% of sexual minorities surveyed reported that their health was poor for 14 or more days each month. In the final quarter of the year, following public discussion and Indiana’s passage of the RFRA, 59.5% of sexual minorities reported poor health in 14 or more days per month. By contrast, heterosexual people in Indiana did not have any increase in unhealthy days across the same period.

Research shows that sexual minority populations have greater rates of poor mental health, including depression and anxiety, which are attributed to the discrimination, harassment and stigma that they often endure. They also face a higher risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

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“The Indiana case suggests that the character of the RFRA law might be an important factor in its broader impacts on public health,” study co-author Erin Cassese, Ph.D. was quoted as saying. “Some RFRAs are stronger than others, and Indiana’s RFRA law ‘has teeth’ in the sense that it can be used in private litigation, including cases where businesses wish to deny services to sexual minorities. It also permits courts to grant compensatory damages against whomever brings the suit – making a court challenge to a service denial a much riskier proposition.

In the end, this research adds to a growing body of research demonstrating that experiences of discrimination are associated with poor health outcomes in a range of minority populations, Cassese added. It also “suggests negative health outcomes might be a consequence of this type of policy, and thus warrant some consideration by policymakers.”

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