It is much easier to sit in front of my computer screen and opine about government, politicians, policies and the challenge of living in a democratic municipality than it is to enter the political process as one voice among others. It is much easier to limit my engagement to spaces and contexts where most are in agreement. It’s easy to sit in our Sunday school classes and talk about our responsibilities in the public square. It’s much harder to actually move from theoretical advocacy to responsibly and faithfully inhabiting those places where decisions are made about the common good.
I recently had such an opportunity as the city in which I live was debating whether or not we need a nondiscrimination ordinance to protect LGBTQ persons in our community. I went to a public meeting as a private citizen, as a person of faith with clear convictions about justice and as a religious figure who serves as president of a seminary that resides in the area the city council oversees. I went as one voice among others (which is always helpful to those of us given to pontification).
Members of our community had been working on this for more than a year. It takes great patience and strategic thinking to make policy change. As one who came late to this movement, I grew in respect for those who have labored to garner support and sift what is at stake. They are serving the common good in ways that may surpass some of our faith communities that are more insular.
I was pleasantly surprised by the level of civility. No one clapped, hissed or booed. Persons listened attentively to those with whom they disagreed on the nature of human sexuality, religious freedom and public accommodation. And we stayed a very long time in order to give each one opportunity to present perspectives on the proposed ordinance. I found myself on the opposite side of some other clergy, especially Roman Catholics, which was painful since I care intensely about unity of the Body of Christ.
I felt it important to stress that persons of faith can find inclusive ways to express their own religious freedom. It requires empathy and attentiveness to those whose experience we may not understand. I spoke about the journey our school has been on, seeking to be nondiscriminatory in all our functions.
“We must work to preserve human dignity and religious liberty for all.”
For the past seven years, Central Baptist Theological Seminary has had a non-discriminatory policy that names gender identity and sexual orientation. Our board is far from a wild-eyed liberal group; rather they are sober, faithful people who believe in religious liberty, justice and compassion. They acknowledged that we know a lot more today about human sexuality than when the Scriptures were penned. We believed it was the right position for a school that prepares leaders for ministry.
Some in attendance at the city council meeting were stunned that “a Baptist can be open minded,” as one put it, after I articulated our institutional perspective. The popular (and rather monolithic) conception of who Baptists are is less than admirable.
I presented a few brief words of witness from the perspective of religious liberty, especially as the rhetoric of discrimination is heating up nationally, kindled by the Trump administration. Reports continue to surface that the president is asking the Supreme Court to legalize workplace discrimination against gay employees.
Religious liberty does not mean persons can do whatever they please. We live in community as citizens in a democracy that has both legal and social obligations. The free exercise of religion is within a larger commonwealth, which has implications for the religious liberty of others.
Thus, the limits of religious liberty have to do with whether or not its exercise causes harm to another. Precluding employment, housing or public accommodation is life-threatening and injures already vulnerable citizens. We are aware of the statistics of incidences of suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth and adults; additionally, violence against this community is rampant.
Congregations are free to do what they choose about including or excluding sexual minorities from membership, roles of leadership either ordained or lay, and whether to provide pastoral services (including weddings) to LGBTQ couples. The church or synagogue or temple can determine how it will exercise its religious liberty. It can exclude in a way a civil society cannot, yet many religious leaders are learning how to include and accord dignity to those formerly marginalized by faith communities.
As the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty has concluded: “A baker or florist’s religious beliefs do not provide a blanket exemption to state or local laws that protect customers against discrimination in the commercial marketplace. Granting an exemption could drastically undermine nondiscrimination laws which provide important protections for religious customers.” This balanced perspective offers a helpful approach to the thorny issues a community faces. Baptists and other communions caring about religious liberty can trust the BJC as a reliable guide on current legal challenges.
“The limits of religious liberty have to do with whether or not its exercise causes harm to another.”
We must work to preserve human dignity and religious liberty for all. This means that employment, housing and commercial services are equally available to all. It is the right thing to do; it is good for our community; and, yes, it is good for business. Across the nation, the law is trending toward equality. The church must not lag behind.
We must not be absent from the social landscape. Schools and churches are members of the larger community, and we are called to participate constructively as faithful interpreters of gospel values. Keeping silent is not helpful in our times when the principle of religious liberty, as set forth in the First Amendment, is being hijacked by religious leaders and others who give it a narrow sectarian meaning that argues for personal privilege and concomitant discrimination.
The proposed ordinance passed with a 5-2 vote. It was an act of compassion and justice for which I am grateful. I pray it will be but one of many grassroots-led actions for the common good in the days ahead.
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