Faith, God & Family: Stopping Religious Freedom Bills Requires More than Economic Strategy

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By Paul P. Jesep*/TRT Columnist—

Recently, Georgia’s governor vetoed a so-called religious liberty bill. In contrast, governors in Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina signed bills that target the LGBTQ community for discrimination, including housing and employment. There’s a great deal of work to do in educating people that religious freedoms are being threatened.

Although irrational, fear is taking hold. The victory in Georgia stemmed from potential economic impacts. It did nothing to address ongoing concerns that religious rights are being marginalized. If Texas U.S. Senator Ted Cruz is the Republican nominee for president and defeats likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, a widely distrusted candidate, there will be greater efforts to roll back LGBTQ rights.

Cruz was, until he conceded, debating Donald Trump over transgender rights. In late April, Trump said North Carolina made a mistake by passing a religious liberty law. According to Trump, he wouldn’t care if a transgender woman used a lady’s room at one of his properties.

According to Cruz, who could still beat Trump in an open convention for the GOP presidential nomination, transgender males are, “Grown adult men—strangers … [who] should not be alone in a bathroom with little girls.”

Several religious liberty laws Cruz supports also allow, among other things, a hotel or restaurant owner to deny service to same-gender couples or a person perceived or known to be LGBTQ. Although there has been a backlash from businesses and celebrities, it shouldn’t be forgotten the discriminatory bills were passed by legislators and signed into law by governors elected in a democratic process.

Nationally, religious liberty bills are mushrooming. In 2015, more than 100 religious liberty bills were introduced in state legislatures.

As noted in past columns, LGBTQ activists must respectfully engage with social conservatives. A reluctance to do it may have a negative, long-term impact on civil and human rights. Economic pressure is very important, but isn’t enough, especially if business pressure fosters a deep resentment towards the LGBTQ community.

Dialogue with social conservatives means listening and showing how marriage equality and other measures to protect the LGBTQ community don’t reduce anyone’s religious or spiritual freedom. Defeat of religious liberty bills based on economic arguments does nothing to re-channel the anger of those who genuinely believe their rights are under threat.

Religious activists need to be met on their terms, in their communities, and with a civil educational campaign to change hearts and minds, or at the very least an effort to neutralize some of the political impact of widespread misinformation.

Commercials featuring ordained clergy supporting marriage equality are needed in these states. Knowledgeable religious leaders talking about different verses of scripture must be heard on talk shows and they must reach out to reporters and editorial boards. If it’s being done, there clearly isn’t enough of it. Ask yourself, how often are faith leaders who support marriage equality on a national or local news cast offering a view to counterbalance conservative religious perspectives?

Direct outreach to places of worship is required. This doesn’t mean there will be openness to hear another interpretation of Christian texts, but in the rare cases it does occur, an invaluable opportunity arises to use logic and common sense and offer a different understanding of sacred scriptures. Holy law is not being changed to suit popular culture. Society’s understanding, however, is changing through revelation and enlightenment.

Addressing concerns about religion requires more than an emphasis on economics. It requires community outreach and building personal relationships to stop laws as well as addressing the drama of those most worried about their freedoms.

*Paul is a corporate chaplain, seminary trained priest, and attorney in Albany, NY. Reach him through www.CorporateChaplaincy.biz.

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