How the equality law could hurt black churches and religious schools

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Portrait of Adriana Bellet

When I first arrived in the United States from Jamaica in 1979, I did not fully understand the ramifications of religious freedom. Even though I was a practicing Christian, I remember turning down a staff member’s request for a Good Friday day off as a new director in a Boston hospital. It never occurred to me that I could interfere with this person’s expression of faith. In retrospect, this is a decision that I deeply regret.

At the time, religious freedom was just not on my radar, even though I was deeply involved in issues of racial and economic justice. However, in 2010 I started to see it differently. The Becket Fund for Religious Freedom awarded a dear friend and renowned professor of Princeton, Robert P. George, the Canterbury Medal for his work in defense of religious freedom. In the conversation after the event, he made an obvious point that struck me with new power: it is essential that all believers stand up for the right of others not to agree with them if they wanted to. guarantee the authenticity of their own religious commitments. This has led to a growing conviction of the importance of advancing freedom of conscience for both people of faith and those without faith.

I have become increasingly aware of the importance of religious freedom protections for the Black Church as Director of the Seymour Institute for Black Church Studies and Politics. As a committed Christian, I was convinced of the moral correctness of the biblical mandate for marriage between a man and a woman. I was also aware of the growing acceptance of same-sex unions in the United States and the growing stigma against those who upheld the right to dissent, including those in the Black Church.

Since the inception of black denominations, they have played a vital role in protecting black people from the effects of white supremacy. Black churches have served as places of worship, intellectual exchange, social interaction, mutual support, leadership development, and organization against racial and economic injustice. Today, small urban churches, often located among the poorest populations, carry on this tradition. A study found that black congregations in Philadelphia, although smaller and under-resourced compared to white churches, provided $ 89,000 per year in services to their neighbors. The rate at which black congregations provided programs was higher than comparable white congregations. They are key black institutions, especially for poorer African Americans. As they abide by biblical norms on sexuality and gender, it was clear that guarantees of religious freedom were urgently needed for these congregations.

Black churches also have a fundamental belief that justice requires the church to uphold the rights of all. This must include individuals of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Religious communities have too often fallen short of this standard. It is a sin that the churches must correct.

Even though black churches need the protections of religious freedom, they are often more reluctant to engage in the struggle for it. When former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt invited my husband, Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III, Founder and Director of the Seymour Institute, to get involved in the American Religious Freedom Program, we went to Kansas to support efforts to be successful. a law on the restoration of religious freedom at the state level and learned firsthand about this reluctance. We encountered a major challenge in engaging black churches: a long-standing lack of support from religious freedom advocates on issues that deeply concern black communities. The most visible and ardent champions of religious freedom have often paid much less attention to issues of racial justice.

Historically, the religious traditions to which many concerned with religious freedom belong have been hostile to black freedom and rights. This was true when the religious freedom of slaves was protected in Caroline’s Basic Constitutions, but reinterpreted to ensure that enslaved Africans could not seek freedom on the basis of their Christian faith. This was true when the religious freedom of southern whites was used as an argument against Harry Truman’s efforts to end discrimination in employment based on race. This is true today when conservative Christians are indifferent to the public policy implications of the needs of poor black communities.

In addition, African Americans have overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party and its candidates since President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Although it impacts all Americans, regardless of party, religious freedom is often seen as a Republican issue, making it difficult for many blacks to support it. After all, in the 20th century, the Republican Party served as a safe haven for whites in the South who deserted the Democratic Party when Lyndon B. Johnson enacted the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. For many African Americans, being associated with the defense of religious freedom is like betraying the fight for racial justice simply by association.

I understand the hesitation. Nevertheless, it is essential that all Christians fight together for religious freedom as well as for issues of social justice that correspond to fundamental religious teachings. The right to act on the basis of deeply held religious beliefs has been one of the most powerful weapons in advancing justice for the black community.

It is precisely this right that has enabled the Southern Leadership Conference and tens of thousands of black southerners to march for civil rights. It is precisely this right that gave the children of slaves the power to assert their faith in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of all humans that results from it. Indeed, it was a deep religious faith, animated by passionate chanting and catchy sermons late into the night, that motivated African Americans to confront fire hoses, police dogs, and officers with batons during the night. peaceful marches for civil rights.

Black churches are in danger due to declining support for this freedom. The Equality Act – which has already been passed in the House and is currently before the Senate – is a misnomer. The bill does not treat all Americans equally, but subjugates the rights of believers to the rights of LGBTQ people. The law expands non-discrimination provisions for the LGBTQ community on the back of federal civil rights protections. The provisions of the Civil Rights Act were created to address the legacy of slavery and the historic pattern of racial discrimination. The implication that sexual orientation and gender identity are analogous to race is false. This comparison wrongly implies a historical and existential equivalence between the harm suffered by LGBTQ people and the experience of African Americans, who endured the unique horrors of white supremacy, slavery, rape, terrorism. and apartheid in the United States.

One area of ​​great concern is that this law removes the right to appeal to the federal law on the restoration of religious freedom, which largely bypasses that law. In the opinion of Douglas Laycock, a prominent jurist, the act would “crush” conscientious objectors. The implications for blacks and black congregations cannot be overstated. Black students are strongly represented among those attending religious colleges who would risk losing federal funding because of the schools’ commitment to biblical values ​​in the area of ​​sexuality. And minority students in these schools rely heavily on federal aid. Thus, the law is likely to restrict the options of these students, reducing the number of colleges they could attend. A similar impact is possible for young urban students who, as numerous research has shown, are particularly well served by parish schools.

At the same time, the law broadens the definition of public premises, so that many entities, such as places of worship, which would previously have been exempted could now fall under this law. Most black churches provide youth services, provide cash assistance, operate pantries, and conduct voter registration, among many other services provided to their members and neighbors. The equality law would compromise the ability of these churches to provide services in accordance with their deeply held religious beliefs.

The potential harm to black churches and the vulnerable populations we serve motivates me to take action, as I recently co-signed a letter to the Senate on the Gender Equality Act. AND Campaign, an organization committed to biblical values and social justice. As a daughter of the Black Church, an elder of my own fraternity, as a black Christian committed to justice, I am convinced of the need to protect the right of the Church to live and teach in accordance with our commitments. of deepest faith. Two key aspects of this are to stand firm on biblical anthropology and to serve the poor and needy.

I am therefore obliged to denounce the law on equality. Another key biblical principle must be observed: upholding the rights of all individuals, especially those such as members of the LGBTQ community who have been the target of social ostracism. Therefore, I urge Congress to protect LBGTQ people. But Congress must not remove the protections provided by the bipartisan law on the restoration of religious freedom. It should not expand the meaning of public premises in a way that exposes black congregations that can least afford it to legal action. Our lawmakers are certainly wise enough to find a way to protect the rights of the LBGTQ community while strengthening the fundamental and constitutionally protected freedom of conscience and religion.

Jacqueline Cooke-Rivers is Director of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies and a PhD candidate at Harvard Kennedy School.

Note: Portions of this essay are included in the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies statement on equality law.

This story appears in the May issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about the subscription.



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