Rights vs. rites

Do we need re­li­gion to win LGBT equal­ity?

GA Voice - - Faith & Religion - By Laura Dou­glas-Brown lbrown@the­gavoice.com

Last month, five gay cou­ples lined up at the DeKalb County Pro­bate Court to ask for mar­riage li­censes. In a poignant protest, all were de­nied, as Ge­or­gia law bans gay mar­riage.

A hand­ful of lo­cal LGBT and al­lied clergy were on hand as “peace­keep­ers” for the protest, part of the “We Do” project or­ga­nized by the Cam­paign for South­ern Equal­ity.

As the cou­ples and a crowd of about 50 sup­port­ers marched to the court­house, they were led by Rev. Jas­mine Beach-Fer­rara, who wore her cler­i­cal col­lar. Be­fore en­ter­ing, they gath­ered in a prayer cir­cle on the lawn.

For a protest tar­get­ing the lack of a civil right — mar­riage for same-sex cou­ples — much of the event had the air of a re­li­gious rite.

“For many, this is an act of spir­i­tual wit­ness as much as it is a po­lit­i­cal act and I be­lieve it’s vi­tal that they have the ro­bust and vis­i­ble sup­port of faith lead­ers and peo­ple of faith as they do this,” said Beach-Fer­rara, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cam­paign for South­ern Equal­ity.

For most of the more than 40 years since the Stonewall Ri­ots kicked off the mod­ern gay rights move­ment, de­bates over LGBT is­sues were cast as gay peo­ple on one side, re­li­gious peo­ple on the other.

The “God vs. gays” di­vide was never com­pletely true, as there have al­ways been both re­li­gious LGBT peo­ple and non-gay re­li­gious peo­ple who sup­port LGBT equal­ity.

But it has be­come es­pe­cially in­ac­cu­rate over the last decade, as main­stream re­li­gious de­nom­i­na­tions moved to­ward gay in­clu­sion and gay rights or­ga­ni­za­tions made a con­certed ef­fort to in­clude faith and re­li­gion on their agen­das.

“The ter­rain in the re­li­gious world is chang­ing quickly,” Beach-Fer­rara said. “The de­bate about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and LGBT rights is ul­ti­mately rooted in di­verg­ing re­li­gious be­liefs; for many years, re­li­gious voices con­demn­ing ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity were loud­est in this de­bate, but that’s chang­ing quickly as more faith tra­di­tions are speak­ing and act­ing pub­licly to sup­port the full equal­ity of LGBT peo­ple.”

Fight­ing faith with faith

To be cer­tain, re­li­gion re­mains a bat­tle­ground. While some 70 per­cent of les­bian, gay and bi- sex­ual peo­ple iden­tify as Chris­tian, ac­cord­ing to a 2009 sur­vey by the Barna Group, a Gallup poll in De­cem­ber 2012 found that “re­li­gion/Bi­ble says its wrong” re­mains the most-cited rea­son for op­pos­ing gay mar­riage.

“The great­est de­ter­rent do­mes­ti­cally and glob­ally to our ca­pac­ity to change hearts and minds on LGBT is­sues re­mains re­li­gious op­po­si­tion,” said Sharon Groves, di­rec­tor of the Re­li­gion & Faith Pro­gram at the Hu­man Rights Cam­paign, the na­tion’s largest LGBT po­lit­i­cal group.

The Na­tional Les­bian & Gay Task Force also cites spe­cific pro­grams re­lated to re­li­gion, as do many smaller LGBT groups.

HRC’s ef­fort was launched in 2005 to counter the Re­li­gious Right, Groves said.

“It was cre­ated in di­rect re­sponse to the 2004 elec­tions where ‘fam­ily val­ues’ were lauded as on the side of the re­li­gious right,” she said. “We knew as a com­mu­nity that we had to show­case the great work that was be­ing done in re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties and cre­ate a drum­beat for fu­ture work in those spa­ces.”

Even or­ga­ni­za­tions ded­i­cated to keep­ing government and re­li­gion apart rec­og­nize the role of faith lead­ers in ad­vo­cat­ing for LGBT equal­ity.

“I think for many years, if not decades, re­li­gion was the fore­most en­emy to LGBT civil rights,” said Rev. Steven C. Baines, as­sis­tant field di­rec­tor for re­li­gious outreach for Amer­i­cans United for Sep­a­ra­tion of Church & State.

“This has changed greatly due to the tire­less ef­forts of so many s/heroes of the faith who told our sto­ries, who never gave up hope that peo­ple’s hearts can be changed, and who truly be­lieved that God was big­ger than any prej­u­dice or op­pres­sion,” he noted.

While the Cam­paign for South­ern Equal­ity is not a re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tion, faith plays an in­te­gral role in the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s ef­forts, BeachFer­rara said.

“We do talk about faith in our work and in­clude in­ter­faith re­li­gious el­e­ments in the We Do

Cam­paign,” she said, “as a way to ex­press how peo­ple’s faith be­liefs mo­ti­vate them to act for full equal­ity.”

‘War on re­li­gious free­dom’

Re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives, once win­ning in the cul­ture war, now find them­selves fac­ing op­po­si­tion both in the courts and the court of pub­lic opin­ion. And with ap­peals to “fam­ily val­ues” no longer work­ing in the gen­eral pub­lic, many now seek to re­frame the de­bate as one over “re­li­gious free­dom.”

Take the re­cent Ge­or­gia case of Jen­nifer Kee­ton, a coun­sel­ing stu­dent at Au­gusta State Univer­sity who was ex­pelled af­ter she failed to com­plete a re­me­di­a­tion plan de­signed to help her learn more about LGBT peo­ple. Kee­ton had stated that she would coun­sel a pa­tient that ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is im­moral, a vi­o­la­tion of eth­i­cal po­lices that re­quire coun­selors not to im­pose their own mo­ral at­ti­tudes on their clients.

Kee­ton’s at­tor­neys with the Al­liance De­fense Fund ar­gued that her First Amend­ment right to free­dom of re­li­gion was vi­o­lated. Kee­ton lost her law­suit, but con­ser­va­tive le­gal foun­da­tions are us­ing the same strat­egy in sev­eral oth­ers.

With some gay rights op­po­nents claim­ing that hav­ing to com­ply with pro-LGBT laws or poli­cies vi­o­lates their right to re­li­gious free­dom, is it dan­ger­ous to frame ar­gu­ments for LGBT civil rights in re­li­gious terms?

“The back­lash that I think peo­ple hear or read about comes from those who use the lives and loves of LGBT peo­ple as a po­lit­i­cal wedge,” says Baines of Amer­i­cans United. “This so­called ‘war on re­li­gious free­dom’ is noth­ing more than the same snake oil that has been used by op­po­nents to op­po­nents to incite fear amongst a cer­tain po­lit­i­cal base.”

Still, LGBT ad­vo­cates need to be cau­tious, said HRC’s Groves.

“I think we need to be care­ful not to ar­gue for a shift in pub­lic pol­icy on the ba­sis of faith,” she said, while adding, “The re­li­gious right, how­ever, does not hold a mo­nop­oly on re­li­gious free­dom.

“Many main­line Protes­tant and Jewish de­nom­i­na­tions and an in­creas­ing num­ber of or­di­nary peo­ple of faith watch their re­li­gious free­dom cur­tailed when they are told they can­not ad­vo­cate for LGBT equal­ity,” Groves said. “Ar­gu­ing for LGBT equal­ity from a faith per­spec­tive is about en­gag­ing hearts and mind, it isn’t about mak­ing pol­icy based on re­li­gion.”

Be­yond back­lash

While “mar­riage equal­ity is most def­i­nitely a church-state sep­a­ra­tion is­sue,” the vis­i­bil­ity of LGBT peo­ple of faith is ac­tu­ally a good an­swer to the “re­li­gious free­dom” back­lash, Baines said.

“Peo­ple of faith are wor­ship­ping in the same pews as their LGBT friends and neigh­bors and they have come to re­al­ize that their own re­li­gious free­dom is not threat­ened when the equal­ity of all is af­firmed and cel­e­brated in their com­mu­ni­ties,” he said. “What is los­ing in the court of pub­lic opin­ion is the no­tion that re­li­gious be­lief is a le­git­i­mate ex­cuse for prej­u­dice and dis­crim­i­na­tion.”

For Beach-Fer­rara, the ben­e­fits of LGBT re­li­gious vis­i­bil­ity out­weigh any draw­backs.

“Some back­lash may oc­cur, but the greater truth is that we are ex­press­ing fun­da­men­tal mo­ral truths in the pub­lic square, us­ing voices of faith and of con­science,” she said. “Some with dif­fer­ent re­li­gious be­liefs may fear that their rights will be en­croached on, but there’s no ev­i­dence of that, nor is there an in­tent to do that.…

“I’m per­son­ally pre­pared to as­sume the risk of such back­lash if it means, for ex­am­ple, that LGBT youth are hear­ing af­fir­ma­tive re­li­gious voices telling them they are whole and equal peo­ple,” she said.

On Jan. 7, Rev. Jas­mine Beach-Fer­rara led five cou­ples and more than 50 sup­port­ers to the DeKalb County Pro­bate Court to protest Ge­or­gia’s law ban­ning gay mar­riage. While mar­riage is a civil right, the protest also evoked re­li­gious rites through group prayer. (Photo by Dyana Bagby)

Con­ser­va­tives who op­pose gay rights are now seek­ing to frame the de­bate in terms of ‘re­li­gious free­dom,’ as in the Ge­or­gia case of Jen­nifer Kee­ton, a coun­sel­ing stu­dent who ar­gued that her First Amend­ment rights were vi­o­lated when Au­gusta State Univer­sity ex­pelled her af­ter she failed to com­plete a re­me­di­a­tion plan de­signed to help her de­velop em­pa­thy for LGBT peo­ple. (File photo)

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