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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Discrimination in the Name of Religion: Methodists, Religious Freedom Laws, and What’s Right

In the 1980s when I was heavily involved with gay rights in Columbus, Ohio, I was invited to be a speaker at a downtown Methodist church where the congregation was breaking in two over the issue of recognizing LGBT rights—a startling idea in those days.  One of the most incredible speakers was a young man, openly gay, who was currently in the seminary studying to be a Methodist minister.  When more or less everyone there pointed out to him that the Methodist Church condemned homosexuality and certainly would not allow him to be ordained, he smiled and explained with tremendous sincerity, his voice like an angel, that “My calling is so strong, so long felt, so deep, that I know in my heart that God would not call me to take this path if it didn’t lead to fulfilling my mission within the Church.  I know that before I graduate the Church will change its mind and open its arms to welcome gay people into its flock.”  He was on the verge of tears as he said this. 

It was very moving.

I had two conflicting reactions, both of which I kept to myself.  One was pity because I knew (and so did most everyone there) that he was so very wrong as to what would happen, and the other was “Don’t be a fool!” since he was wasting his time in catapulting so forcefully against a large and unmoving brick wall.

I don’t know what happened to that dedicated young man, but in 2016 that same wall is standing with only the slightest hint of a crack.  The Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline still deems homosexuality “inconsistent with Christian teaching” and flatly prohibits the ordination of gay clergy.  Nor may Methodist minister perform gay weddings, as happened May 7th of this year when the Rev. David Meredith, a Methodist minister, married Jim Schlachter at the same Methodist Church I’d spoken at thirty years before, leading all Methodists involved to be the immediate subject of suspension.  Adding to this fire, more than 100 members of the Methodist clergy came out in a “love letter” sent to the national convention in Portland, Oregon, two days later, which appealingly asked the church to open its heart to its gay parishioners.  The convention promptly tabled the whole matter by creating a future study group.

The Marriage of Meredith and Schlachter

All over the country states are battling laws protecting LGBT rights, and two recent terrifying events have particularly caused dire reactions: gay marriage and transgendered people in bathrooms.  I’ve written much about these topics in the past [see “Related Posts” below], but in this post I want discuss the religious justifications for such virulent denial of gay people.  I’ll focus on Christianity, although most traditional  religions, and particularly Islam, are no better. 

First let’s address whether the bible in fact condemns homosexuality.  As I’ve explained at length in a prior post [see “Does the Bible Condemn Homosexuality?” June 29, 2014;], in spite of learned explanations as to why it doesn’t, I conclude that the bible does indeed make such a denunciation rather clearly in both the Old and New Testaments.  Of course it also condemns things such as getting a tattoo and eating shellfish, but let’s move on.

I’m certainly willing to grant all people freedom of religion to believe whatever they want.  I’m a lawyer and an American citizen so that vital concept is important to me.  That said, I do not grant religious people the right to use their religion as a weapon to attack beliefs or people not in agreement with them.  The way to settle such disagreements is to test the competing ideas in the public forum and let the American people decide.  Gay rights activists have been fighting in that hot arena a long time, and have been mangled by large arena lions for decades.  Recently, as if by magic, gays have emerged largely victorious, nursing multiple wounds.  Their political ascendency is startling to devout believers of the bible, who have (in the blink of an eye in biblical time) lost their god-given right to treat gays as condemnable misfits.  Incredibly, gays—archetypal sinners—are now protected in matters such as marriage and discrimination, and society’s demand to treat these evildoers as fellow citizens is unacceptable to many traditionally religious people.

Legislators in some states (I mean you, Mississippi, North Carolina, and—alas—my native state of Indiana) have passed laws either forbidding protection of gays from discrimination or creating “religious liberty” exceptions to such protection so that those with sincere religious beliefs don’t have to abandon them when dealing with spiritually unclean homos.  These laws have come under legal attack as unconstitutional, and eventually the United States Supreme Court is likely to deem them so.  Really?  Yes, says the lawyer.  Of course freedom of religion in the First Amendment to the Constitution would and should keep governmental entitles from enacting laws dictating how religions must run themselves (“Catholic Schools must teach that the bible is wrong when it says gays are an abomination”—such a statute would be obviously unconstitutional), but religious people moving around in the public sphere have to behave as all citizens do in the marketplace or when dealing with authorities.

Meaning?  Well, flower shops run by a believer in Islam cannot refuse to make flowers for a Jewish customer.  If the Muslim owner of the shop doesn’t like that, he/she should get into a business that doesn’t deal with the public.  Kim Davis, a country clerk in Kentucky, has to issue marriage licenses to everyone—it’s her job—and can’t use her personal beliefs to decide she’ll not perform that job when a gay couple wants to exercise the power of the state to marry.  If she can’t bring herself to issue the license, she’s self-deciding she's not fit to do her job and must therefore either resign or be fired.  There’s no right to be a public official who can change public laws because of disagreement with the lawmakers who passed them. 

Deeply religious people, very upset by this, are vigorously asserting the contrary.  I read in the news recently about a clerk in a Department of Motor Vehicles office who used religion as the grounds for not issuing a driver’s license to a gay applicant.  If the clerks of the country could legally do that we’d soon have a patchwork of citizen “types”: those whose status offends no one, those who offend some but not most people, those in questionable categories who would never be sure if they could buy a burger, attend a movie, hire a wedding photographer, etc.

Our country cannot operate with degrees of protection for public access.  “Religious Freedom” laws sound like a good idea only because of their title (no one is against religious freedom) but extending them to sanction “pick and choose” compliance with the law either in the marketplace or when seeking government services would mean that the United States is abandoning concepts of citizenship that have been treasured on this continent for centuries.

Summing up is simple: Let’s be very sure we don’t legislate hatred.

Related Posts:

A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013;

“Does the Bible Condemn Homosexuality and Gay Marriage?” June 29, 2014;

North Carolina Forbids LGBT Protection, Romer v. Evans, and the Future, March 31, 2016;


The Pope In America: Women, Sexual Minorities, and Kim Davis, September 28, 2015;


"The Aging Gay Rights Activist," March 24, 2010;

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