Based on my criticism of the North Carolina and Mississippi religious liberty bills, my more conservative friends might assume that I’m in lockstep with the pro-LGBT agenda. This final post, however, is likely to perturb my progressive friends.
I continue to affirm the traditional Christian doctrine of marriage, along with the overwhelming majority of Christians historically and globally, and I also believe the U.S. Constitution’s affirmation of religious freedom is an indispensable cornerstone of our republic and responsible for much of its greatness. All Americans owe a great debt to James Madison for composing the First Amendment, and particularly Christians as our faith has thrived in an environment, unlike Europe, where government interference in religion has been prohibited.
The great importance of religious liberty explains my third objection to the “religious liberty” bills passed in Mississippi and North Carolina.
Reason Three: Laws that demean LGBTs in the name of “religious liberty” only alienate Americans at a moment when legitimate religious liberty issues need broader support.
As I stated in Part 2, religious liberty laws have not kept pace with the rapid advancement of gay rights and the legalization of same-sex marriage. This has resulted in great anxiety for many religious organizations now facing severe penalties or the possibility of closure for not adopting the government’s expanded definition of marriage. This outcome was not unforeseen. During oral arguments before the Supreme Court last year in Obergefell v. Hodges, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli acknowledged that finding a constitutional right to same-sex marriage would jeopardize tax-exempt religious institutions.
In Part 1, I showed there is no evidence that the government will force churches or clergy to participate in same-sex marriages, and those employing such arguments are unnecessarily frightening Christians for partisan gain. There are, however, very real concerns for other religious organizations like colleges and social service providers that rely on federal grants, loans, or subsidies. For example, a Christian university that refuses married housing to a gay couple could lose its tax-exemption and effectively be shut down, or a Catholic charity may be closed for refusing to hire a gay person whose views on marriage do not conform with Catholic doctrine.
The rapid re-definition of marriage in the U.S. has suddenly put thousands of faith-based organizations that have been serving society for hundreds of years into the category of “discriminatory,” “bigoted,” and possibly “illegal.” Without a reaffirmation of religious liberty in a post-Obergefell America, these organizations will be forced to choose between fidelity to their religious convictions and serving the common good. This doesn’t only apply to Christian non-profits, but to any religious organization—Jewish, Hindu, or Muslim—that maintains a traditional view of marriage.
Given these real challenges, advocates of religious liberty need broad public support to ensure sensible legislation is passed that respects the rights of LGBT Americans and reaffirms the right of religious groups to operate in the public square for the common good. Assembling that broad support is much more difficult, however, when Christians are pushing laws that unnecessarily hurt our LGBT neighbors and defend those who discriminate against them under the banner of “religious liberty.” This is my greatest objection to the Mississippi and North Carolina laws. By forcing a transgender man to use the women’s bathroom and allowing a pizza restaurant to refuse a lesbian her veggie supreme, these bills make it harder for legitimate religious liberty issues to gain public support. Not only are such bills morally wrong, they are politically stupid.
Consider what happened in Georgia. House Bill 757 originally looked a lot like the religious liberty bill that passed in Mississippi. It sought to shield businesses from prosecution for discriminating against LGBTs. It was rightfully seen as anti-gay and harmful. Eventually, those provisions were removed from the Georgia bill, and HB 757 focused instead on protecting religious non-profits—the colleges, charities, and social service organizations I described above. The bill landed on the desk of Governor Nathan Deal but the damage was already done. The discriminatory laws passed in North Carolina and Mississippi, along with HB 757’s original anti-LGBT provisions, had tainted public perception of the more sensible Georgia legislation. Under enormous public and corporate pressure, Governor Deal vetoed the bill.
Christian support for two very bad religious liberty laws resulted in the failure of a much better (although not perfect) religious liberty law.
That is why I believe the laws in North Carolina and Mississippi, and others like them, are so harmful to Christians and anyone else who truly cares about strengthening First Amendment protections. The fear-mongering of conservative partisans about government agents forcing pastors to perform gay marriages, and Christian activists seeking to reverse decades of public accommodation laws, will only ensure the faster erosion of our liberties as the public comes to believe “religious liberty” is code language for “discrimination.”
If real religious liberty protections are to be secured, religious leaders from all traditions, legislators, and concerned citizens must pursue a different strategy than the “us vs. them” tactics currently playing out across the country:
- We must stand with our LGBT neighbors to oppose all forms of bigotry and discrimination not because we all share the same beliefs about marriage, but because we are all created in the image of God and worthy of dignity and respect.
- We must reframe our cultural engagement from a narrative of “warfare” that seeks to reestablish the cultural power and privilege of Christians, to a narrative of “welfare” that seeks the common good of all Americans.
- Finally, as public trust is restored, we must work together with our LGBT neighbors to compose sensible legislation that protects their rights and those of religious institutions. I do not believe it will be possible without both gay and religious leaders at the table.
If you’ve been listening to the rhetoric in the media, this may seem like an impossibility. It is not. There are good, fair-minded leaders in the LGBT community—I am friends with some of them. Of course, there are compassionate and respectful Christian leaders as well. These voices, however, are rarely platformed by a media that thrives on conflict or by political parties that win elections using fear. That is why we cannot rely on the media or politicians to lead us toward a less antagonistic culture. Such leadership must come from the Church and from Christian leaders who are committed to loving God and their LGBT neighbors.