sun shines through pride flag

Why Religious Liberty Compels Me to Serve Everyone

by Ryan Gear

The Orlando tragedy raised the stakes between LGBTQ rights and religious liberty. The worst mass shooting in U.S. history targeted a gay club, and it did not take place in a vacuum. Far from being an isolated act, the massacre is an eruption of violence out of the heated rhetoric against the LGBTQ community that has come from politicians and pulpits alike, around the world and in the U.S.

Those who deny shared responsibility would have to prove that Dr. King’s assassination had nothing to do with racism and that date rape has nothing to do with a “bro culture” of misogyny. The Orlando mass shooting took place in a time of intense political and religious rhetoric against the LGBTQ community, one in which some business owners go so far as to seek legal grounds to deny service to same sex couples. As we have learned from every civil rights struggle, rejecting and demonizing others breeds violence, both physical and verbal, and now the families of the 50 shooting victims are grieving the loss of their loved ones.

In his June 8 Arizona Republic op-ed, Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Jonathan Scruggs suggested that religious liberty entitles business owners to deny service to same sex couples on religious grounds. Mr. Scruggs represents the owners of Brush & Nib Studio owned by two women who self-identify as Christians and sell customized art, including pieces used in weddings. The owners are suing the City of Phoenix, claiming that the city’s anti-discrimination law, requiring their business to serve same sex couples, is a violation of their religious liberty.

I used to see this issue similarly to Alliance Defending Freedom, but I changed my mind.

I grew up in a conservative evangelical Christian home in the 1980s and 90s, with my views of the Bible, politics, and the LGBTQ community formed by the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. While a student in high school, however, my views were confronted with new evidence. I discovered that two of my close friends were gay. Confusing to me, they simply did not fit the description of a person who is gay that had been given to me by Religious Right televangelists. After knowing them for years, I found it hard to believe they chose to be gay. In fact, I knew one my friends didn’t quite fit the normal boy-girl mold when we were in the first grade. I was confident that he didn’t make a choice prior to being six years old, and I struggled to make sense of my religious views in light of my friendships.

Then, for an entire week during my sophomore year of high school, I witnessed a young male student endure a level of bullying on the school bus route that I will never forget. One Monday afternoon, the school bus stopped to drop off this young man at his house, and a few of the kids on the bus spontaneously began chanting “faggot” at him as he walked toward the front of the bus. Every day that week, the number of students joining in the chant grew, and by Friday, nearly every student on the bus was yelling “faggot” at this young man for a solid minute. It was a painfully long time. After dropping him off on Friday, the bus driver finally put a stop to it. Thankfully I can say that I never joined in the chant, but I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t defend him either. Perhaps that’s one reason I feel compelled to speak out now.

After several years of dissonance between my fundamentalist upbringing and my daily experience of life, while already serving as a pastor in my mid-twenties, I had a crisis of faith. For the first time, I began seeking answers to the questions I had sidestepped earlier. Among other theological issues, some of my questions centered on how we interpret the Bible on issues like science, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights. I also realized that certain Bible passages seem to be used more than others for political purposes. Regarding LGBTQ rights, I could only make sense of my experience of the world and my questions about the Bible by recognizing the dignity and worth of each person in the LGBTQ community, and I affirm loving, committed same sex relationships.

The questions I asked in my twenties apply directly to the current debate surrounding religious liberty in America, and there are several points I believe Christians must consider.

First, in contrast to the view of the Bible I had been taught as a child, that the Bible was essentially written by God and that apparent contradictions could be harmonized to make the Bible read like a logically airtight divine term paper, I began to see the human influence on the Bible. In fact, the Bible is a collection of books written by various authors, more like a library than a term paper, and no one would expect all of the works in a library to agree with one another on every topic.

Second, regardless of what each Christian believes about same sex relationships, almost no American Christian obeys all New Testament commands. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul cites six reasons women should wear head coverings during worship gatherings. Of course, very few American Christians retain this practice. Also in this passage, it seems that women are permitted to pray and prophesy during worship, while in 1 Corinthians 14:34, women are commanded to remain silent. Again, this raises questions about biblical authority and how to thoughtfully interpret the Bible consistently. The role of women in worship is still a difficult subject for many Christians.

Third, regarding same sex relationships, compared to the controversy surrounding the issue in our culture, the Bible says shockingly little about them, and the context of these verses is extremely important. There are over 31,000 verses in the Bible — only six or seven of those appear to condemn same-sex relationships. Sometimes referred to as the “clobber passages” because of their unfortunate misuse, these passages were influenced by ancient culture, as was the whole of the Bible.

In contrast, over 2,000 verses in the Bible address the injustice of poverty. If one were determined to pass laws based on the Bible, legislation giving greater opportunity to the poor would likely be first on the list. Unfortunately, it seems that instead of addressing poverty, some leaders and groups have used these six or seven clobber passages out of 31,000 verses for political purposes.

The American understanding of religious liberty means that we are each free to hold our own religious views regarding LGBTQ rights. In fact, the pilgrims who settled the earliest American colonies immigrated to the New World to escape theocracy. The earliest settlers in the colonies were religious separatists who did not want to be forced to worship in the state sponsored Church of England. To them, religious liberty meant that they could practice their own religion instead of being forced to practice the religion of the state.

This is at least partially why, in American courts, religious liberty has generally not been used as grounds for a business owner to deny service to her or his customers.

A 2016 report from The Leadership Conference finds:

“Courts have generally declined to recognize a religious right to discriminate that would trump a government’s interest in combating discrimination. In a 2013 case involving a wedding photographer, the New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously upheld a finding that the business had violated the state’s human rights ordinance by refusing to photograph a same-sex couple’s commit­ment ceremony.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Richard Bosson wrote that the business owners ‘are free to think, to say, to believe, as they wish, they may pray to the God of their choice and follow those commandments in their personal lives wherever they lead.’ But, he said, in operating a business, the owners have to channel their conduct, calling it a compromise that “is part of the glue that holds us together as a nation, the tolerance that lubricates the varied moving parts of us as a people.” It is, he wrote, “the price of citizenship.”

In the United States, business owners cannot legally deny service to persons based on their religious differences or sexual orientation, and the Phoenix anti-discrimination law will likely be upheld. Religious liberty does not entitle a business owner to deny service to any population.

Religious liberty does mean, however, that Christian business owners have the freedom to wrestle with issues of biblical interpretation according to their own consciences, as long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others. In fact, it is the American concept of religious liberty that gave me the freedom to change my mind and affirm the dignity, worth, and rights of same sex couples.