Richard Davis: The debate over equality and religious freedom

When it comes to LGBT rights, it is not so much what churches can or cannot do, but what they should do.

(Tribune File Photo) Supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community hold up signs during a protest over recent remarks by LDS apostle Boyd K. Packer that same-sex attraction is "impure and "unnatural," in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010.

The debate over the Equality Act, recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, has raised the question about the appropriate legal balance between LGBT rights and religious freedom. However, this debate raises yet another question that does not involve what Christian churches can or cannot do, but what they should do.

The Christian command is to “love thy neighbor.” Jesus Christ defined that neighbor broadly – someone who was a stranger and even of a different social group. In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus reversed roles and created a positive label for a person who belonged to a group reviled by those to whom the parable was being told.

The message was clear: We should not discriminate against someone just because they do not look like us, talk like us, think like us or act like us.

Yet, history suggests that even Christians have a difficult time heeding Jesus’ admonition. America was founded by religious pilgrims who sought a new land safe from the oppression of the Church of England. Yet, these Separatists became discriminatory themselves when they banished religious dissenters from their midst.

Of course, the most egregious discriminatory policy of many churches was their approach towards slaves. Slavery was condemned by some early Americans. Unfortunately, it also was sanctioned by some church leaders at the time. For example, even though the pope condemned human bondage, many Roman Catholic clergy in the U.S. defended slavery. The Jesuits owned nearly 400 slaves in Maryland.

The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845 to sustain support for slavery, as was the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints instituted a racial priesthood ban in the 1850s and the Utah Legislature, dominated by Latter-day Saints, allowed slavery in the territory before the Civil War.

The Civil Rights Movement, which sought equal treatment for all regardless of race, was opposed by many religious leaders in the 1950s and 1960s. Some pastors defended segregation on religious grounds. Religious leaders of the time, such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Elder Ezra Taft Benson, accused the Civil Rights Movement of being infiltrated with communists, thus seeking to diminish support for the movement on the part of their respective church members.

Similarly, religious arguments were used to oppose women’s suffrage. The Congregational Church issued a statement opposing suffrage and asserting that allowing women to vote and become involved in public life was contrary to God’s assigned roles for women. The same arguments were made by many religious leaders when the women’s rights movement emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Campaigns to offer greater opportunities for women to work in roles typically dominated by men were decried as anti-family. Women who sought an end to gender-discriminatory laws were called “evil” and their efforts the work of Satan.

The latest point of discrimination is the treatment of LGBT individuals. For 150 years (from the Victorian Age to the 1970s), homosexuality was a taboo subject, even for religious leaders. However, when the gay rights movement started in 1969, many religious leaders immediately denounced the movement. Homosexuality was a sin and, therefore, defense of the traditional family, they claimed, required opposition to the repeal of anti-discriminatory ordinances and practices.

In each case, there were many religious leaders who sought equal treatment for all regardless of religion, race, gender or sexual orientation. They argued that discrimination on such grounds was un-Christian. Regarding LGBT discrimination, they specifically contended that God loves all his children, homosexuality is not a sin but a natural orientation that occurs with a certain small segment of the population, and opposition to homosexuality had cultural roots.

Eventually, the religious proponents of religious persecution, racial segregation and opposition to expanded roles for women largely abandoned their discriminatory attitudes and practices on the basis of religion, race and sex.

The current debate, then, may not be so much over LGBT rights versus religious freedom than it is about whether religious believers, particularly Christians, will choose to follow the admonition that “God is no respecter of persons.”

Richard Davis

Richard Davis, Orem, is author of “The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Politics.”