United Church of Christ human rights advocates are fighting back and speaking out against a slew of laws sweeping the southern states that threaten the equality of LGBTQ people. In the United States this year, almost 200 anti-LGBT bills have been introduced in 34 states since January, many of them in the South, measures that could be used a means for businesses and religious groups to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people based on the convictions of their faith.
The emerging "religious freedom laws," which seem to be surfacing daily, are seen by some as backlash to the June 2015 Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality. As opponents of these laws denounce them as discriminatory, proponents refer to them as a protection of First Amendment rights.
"What we are seeing in our country is a drastic distortion of the meaning of religious freedom," said the Rev. Traci Blackmon, acting executive minster of UCC Justice and Witness Ministries. "The founding principles of religious freedom in the first amendment of the Constitution were intended to insure citizens protection from religious persecution. What current proponents of such laws are attempting are religious exemptions from the laws that mandate basic human rights. If there is to be any hope for religion at all, we who believe in freedom cannot be bullied into hate."
Just this week, Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill that could restrict access to mental health treatment for LGBT individuals in that state. The bill, which is now before the governor, allows therapists and counselors to reject patients they feel would violate "sincerely held beliefs."
The Rev. June Boutwell, designated conference minister of the Southeast Conference of the UCC, based in Atlanta, believes that "gender identity and orientation are under attack in this part of the country." Much of the attention on these "religious liberty" bills increased with the passage of a North Carolina law in late March.
It took the North Carolina legislature about 12 hours to introduce, pass and sign a law that restricts local governments from adopting anti-discrimination rules that protect LGBT people. The law, HB2, referred to as the "Bathroom Bill," was passed less than a month after the city of Charlotte extended anti discrimination laws so LGBT people were protected in public places — including protections for transgender individuals to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify. HB2 essentially repeals the Charlotte ordinance.
"Civil rights are equal rights," said the Rev. Edward Davis, conference minister of the Southern Conference, based in North Carolina. "There was a time in North Carolina and Virginia where there were signs posted that said 'whites only.' This meant that for some, the ability to satisfy hunger, thirst and rest, was subject to someone else's interpretation and need to choose when, where, and how. I believe HB2 is doing the same thing. Laws must be based on justice, but I believe that this is a law based on fear. Any law that offends, hurts or oppress must be challenged, questioned, and repealed based on its potential harm."
Georgia attempted to pass a similar bill, but it died at the desk of Governor Nathan Deal when he vetoed it.
"Although the governor vetoed the bill, we had a number of pastors concerned about it and they wrote to the governor," Boutwell said. "In the South, there is a conservative Christian element and it's a little hard to hold a progressive context. But we believe anyone is welcome, and laws that allow someone to discriminate based on orientation or belief is not true to the Gospel. Jesus didn't turn anyone away from the table."
One of the key factors why Georgia's bill was vetoed stems from intense public pressure from the corporate sector. Companies and organizations such as Coca-Cola, Dell Computers, Home Depot, Microsoft, UPS, Google, Delta Airlines, and AT&T were among 400 businesses that opposed the bill.
But, Boutwell cautions, other southern states may not have that kind of presence, and she has kept her attention on states such as Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, three of the six states that make up the Southeast Conference. All three of those states now have some form of a "religious freedom" law.
Mississippi's governor, Phil Bryant, signed HB1523 into law on April 5, allowing employers to cite religious beliefs in determining workplace policies on dress code, grooming and bathroom and locker access. Despite the bill, the UCC's Back Bay Mission, a ministry that serves the poor and marginalized people of Biloxi, Miss., has pledged to serve the people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast regardless of their sexual orientation, gender or family status.
"We recognize that our fellow Mississippians have a wide range of religious beliefs and moral convictions. We believe that those religious beliefs deserve appropriate protections," the organization said in a statement. "We cannot and will not accept the marginalization of our brothers and sisters, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or family status. We will continue to advocate for housing and employment opportunities for all people. And we will do that because our religious convictions demand it."
Andy Lang, executive director of the Open and Affirming Coalition of the UCC, said, "Some of us believed marriage equality was the end of our journey towards full civil rights for LGBT Americans. But apart from the fact that 28 states provide no protection for for the rights of LGBT citizens, 'religious exemption' laws now threaten to perpetuate discrimination for years to come. Freedom has to be not only won, but defended. ONA churches are still needed in every community to stand with their LGBT neighbors whenever their rights and dignity are under attack."
Ultimately, Davis emphasizes, it falls to Christian communities to highlight that faith, not fear, must prevail in the equal treatment of all people. "We in the church must engage in dialogue around issues that stereotype and classify," he said. "It is high time in this society where humanity, and the best treatment of it, must have a higher priority than the classifications we assign to it. When these classifications contribute to the demeaning and degrading of humanity, it should be our time to collectively cry out. Our thoughts and beliefs about humanity should be like God — we should consider humanity in the highest value."