Hansen Wendlandt: Romney and Lee can balance religious freedom with LGBTQ acceptance

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Mitt Romney, center, attends funeral services for Maj. Brent R. Taylor, alongside Sen. Mike Lee and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox at Weber State University's Dee Event Center in Ogden, Utah on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018.

As a Utah faith leader, I pray for fairness, equality and respect for all people. With both parties in Washington now proposing nondiscrimination protections for the LGBTQ community, I call on Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee to help forge agreement on this crucial legislation.

My pastoral career began some 20 years ago in churches wrestling to reconcile God’s grace for all people with our culture’s stigma toward LGBTQ people. During my first decade, I watched my denomination splinter, a congregation nearly split down the middle, great ministers pushed away, and, most importantly, enormous pain felt by those who wanted simply to worship with their whole selves in a place of safety and honor.

I’ve seen hate crimes against transgender religious leaders, young people driven to suicide, parents in tears over a demeaning comment in Sunday School, and deep distress about a climate of anger propped up by politicized Christianity.

For 12 years, however, it’s been a blessing to serve in the Mountain West, currently as pastor of Community of Grace Presbyterian Church (USA) in Sandy. Maybe it’s the march of time or these particular faith communities; maybe the beauty of the Rocky Mountains has seeped into their souls. But my congregations here have been so clear in understanding how God’s love informs a proactive welcoming and advocacy for anyone marginalized by our human biases — within the church walls and in our country’s laws. Inclusion, in the broadest terms, is inseparable from our congregants’ sense of holy living.

“Liberty and justice for all,” of course, is not in the Bible, but the men who crafted that phrase were shaped by principles of faith and committed to honoring those principles in building this nation. When the Pulse Nightclub massacre happened in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, there was not liberty and justice “for all,” and my congregation’s prayers for peace were messages like this sent to people in power.

When I was in high school, my mother and her church friends dragged me along to offer support and kindness to men dying of AIDS. There was not liberty and justice “for all” in their plight. And even as it took me, personally, so long to work through (and continue to work through) my own prejudices, eventually it was faith that led me to reflect on what those experiences meant, how they might be one small example of God calling us all to make it more on Earth as it is in Heaven.

Calls to protect the LGBTQ community do not arise out of some newfound idea of enlightened social theory. Rather, our hopes for a more perfect union are fundamental to ancient notions of human well-being. The principles of loving one another arose so clearly in the Jewish prophets and the Indus philosophers, were lived out so inspirationally by Jesus, and have been central to every honorable expression of religion — from before anyone thought to write them down to our modern time. Those same truths, found in sacred texts of great religions, are embedded in the spirit of our Constitution and legal system.

Sadly, other forces are at work. According to a 2020 survey, one in three LGBTQ Americans experienced discrimination — in public spaces, on the job, in schools and in their neighborhoods — in just the previous year. That number rises to 60 percent among transgender people, who endure exceptionally high levels of unemployment and homelessness and are stalked by violence, with a record 44 hate-motivated murders nationwide last year.

Black and Latino LGBTQ folks face even greater poverty than communities of color generally. Less than half the states protect the community’s youth from bullying in school. Elders often have to re-closet themselves, with nearly half of same-sex couples reporting discrimination in seeking senior housing.

Thankfully, there is now optimism that Congress might act, with both Democrats and Republicans advancing measures that add LGBTQ protections to our civil rights laws. Their major disagreement involves balancing the urgent need to protect LGBTQ people with our fundamental respect for religious freedom.

Recognizing how those values need not compete is the job legislators are now called to do. Romney and Lee can look to the 21 states with laws prohibiting anti-LGBTQ discrimination as examples of a path forward without compromising religious freedoms in the least. Every major civil rights advance — from the 1964 Civil Rights Act to the Americans With Disabilities Act — has found the appropriate balance.

Senators Romney and Lee: More than 100,000 LGBTQ Utahns and their families and friends are counting on you.

Reverend Hansen Wendlandt

The Rev. Hansen Wendlandt is pastor of Community of Grace Presbyterian Church, Sandy.