How Big Is Your Religious Liberty?
By Loren Seibold | 23 June 2020 |
This happened many years ago (if it happened at all), long before mobile phones. A youth pastor drives up to a gas station way out in the country, rushes inside, obviously flustered and upset, and asks the clerk, “Did you see a bus filled with young people come through here? A bus that has ‘Blue Lake Christian Camp’ written on the side?” “Yeah,” the clerk says, “They stopped about two hours ago. The driver gassed up, kids used bathrooms and bought snacks, and they pulled out.” “Which way did they go?” the pastor asks. “That way,” says the clerk, pointing. “Why?” “I’ve got to catch up with them,” the pastor says. “I’m their leader.”
It reminds me of our denomination. Why are our leaders always dragging behind the church—dragging it backwards, even—rather than leading it?
I know that many Adventists aren’t quite comfortable with gay Christians yet, with guys married to guys and women to women. But we’ve come a long, long way. Yeah, it’s probably too late for a lot of gay Adventists—those who came to the church decades ago seeking acceptance, and were rejected and haven’t come back—but I give some congregations credit for trying. Even the little churches I pastored at the end of my career (under, I would like to believe, the influence of gospel preaching) had become open to gay people. I thought I saw encouraging signs among our leaders, too, like the NAD’s 2015 Statement on Human Sexuality—which, though weak, is at least something.
Bostock v. Clayton County
On June 15, 2020, the General Conference (GC) and North American Division (NAD) released a joint statement in opposition to the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision Bostock v. Clayton County. This decision drew on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect individuals from sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination. In short, if an employer wanted to fire someone for being gay, the decision said that it was his or her or their civil right to sue.
So why did the GC and the NAD feel the need to issue a warning statement about a SCOTUS decision saying that gay people should be able to defend their jobs if they’re fired only for being gay?
The joint GC/NAD statement is muddy, unless you understand what’s behind it. The key part of it is its criticism of the decision for not being the Fairness For All Act (FFAA) (H.R. 5331), a Mormon-generated bill that mumbles a bit of support for LGBTQ+ civil rights—unless that support should happen to trouble a religious person or institution.
Read through the FFAA, and you’ll see that under the claim of being “fair” to LGBTQ+ people, it redefines them as people who shouldn’t get equal protection under the law. Says Ian Thompson of the ACLU:
It does this by providing religious organizations and service providers with the ability to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity where they are explicitly prohibited under current federal law from discriminating based on other protected characteristics.
While saying that LGBTQ+ should have rights in public spaces (employment, housing, stores, restaurants, financial services), the FFAA carves out a pretty huge exception: if you have religious reasons for believing homosexuality is wrong, your “religious liberty” takes precedence over their rights.
Last week’s statement was basically a way to reassure the faithful that the church is still on their side against gay people. As Bettina Krause wrote in an article on the FFAA last year,
What Fairness for All doesn’t do, however, is to signal a change in thinking on the part of the Church regarding issues of sexual orientation or gender identity. …The Adventist Church’s beliefs on human sexuality are unequivocal and are clearly expressed in various statements and guidelines touching on marriage, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
How Big Is My Religious Liberty?
I’m proud of my church’s advocacy for religious liberty. Or at least I used to be. In more recent years religious liberty in the church appears to have evolved from assisting the unempowered (often, in our case, employees troubled by Sabbath work issues) to protecting our right to exclude those we don’t approve of.
I’m remembering a man in one of my churches who was struggling to keep his job when his employer asked him to work after sundown on Friday. When a letter from me explaining our beliefs didn’t do the trick, I connected him with the religious liberty director of the conference, who referred him to the attorney for our local union conference, who consulted with the General Conference. It took the advocacy of the entire church to make sure that one man could quit work at 6 PM on a winter Friday evening rather than having to continue his shift until the scheduled 10 PM.
It seemed to me then, and seems to me now, that a denomination that would protect a man’s right to keep his job if he wants to knock off work and go home before sundown on Friday, ought to be extremely sensitive to anyone who is threatened with losing their job, especially if the reason is something that the employee has no control over.
Changing Gay People
“‘No control over’, you say, Loren? But I believe that gay people choose to be gay!”
First, you’re wrong. I will assume that’s because you’re uninformed, not prejudiced or hateful. The experience of every gay person, not to mention virtually every study ever conducted, has shown that gay people are attracted to people of their own sex before they realize there is any other way to be. Trying to change that attraction is psychologically shattering.
Gay-to-straight conversion therapy programs have been a profound failure. Exodus International, once favored by our denomination and featuring a prominent Adventist pastor, Colin Cook, closed down and apologized for the harm they’d done. (Cook himself had sexually abused participants.) Journey Into Manhood, Love Won Out, and Love in Action all lost their top leaders—all saying conversion to heterosexuality didn’t work. Just last week one of the country’s largest conversion-therapy programs, Hope for Wholeness, disbanded, unable to find a director or raise money. Its founder, McKrae Game, denounced the group. His experience convinced him that conversion to heterosexuality wasn’t possible. “Not too many people want to throw money at the Titanic as it’s taking water,” he said, “and that’s essentially what ex-gay ministry is.”
That handful of conflicted Christian gay people who say they have become straight appear to frequently end up back in homosexual relationships or affairs.
How the NAD regards homosexuality, however, isn’t a question that still needs to be argued. Says the 2015 Statement on Human Sexuality, “Given the complexities of the fallen human condition (Rom 3:23), we recognize that individuals may experience same-sex orientation through no choice of their own.”
Does this statement not put gay people in precisely the same relationship to us as black people for being black, or women for being female? If the North American Division knows that gay people can’t help being what and who they are, then why wouldn’t its leaders defend any decision that protects their right to be employed? Why would they criticize this decision, and wait for a something less helpful?
Bettina Krause is wrong when she says the church’s “beliefs on human sexuality are unequivocal and are clearly expressed in various statements and guidelines touching on marriage, sexual orientation, and gender identity.” In fact the church tries to play both sides of the street: to sound loving and accepting to homosexuals in one statement, while reserving the right to deny their experience and discriminate against them in another.
The Legal Question
You may say to yourself, “Yeah, but if a church doesn’t believe in homosexuality, should they be forced to accommodate homosexuals in any way?”
First, I’m not sure what it means not to believe in homosexuality. Homosexual people exist, and have as far back as we know. You may not like that, or you may think it’s not ideal. (Indeed, many homosexuals don’t think it’s ideal, which is why gay people enter miserable marriages with people of the opposite sex, and why the conversion ministries find clients.) Does a church that claims to believe in spiritual and psychological wholeness have a right to try to twist them into another shape?
The NAD/GC statement says that the decision is “interpreting federal law in a way that was never intended.” Yet it doesn’t tell us precisely how Bostock v. Clayton County is an erroneous interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which says that an employer cannot “refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
Justice Gorsuch wrote that when an employer fires someone “for being homosexual or transgender,” the employer “fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
The NAD/GC statement claims that “the ability of faith-based institutions to maintain their hiring and conduct standards is now in question and will be the subject of significant litigation.”
Sabbath work problems have also generated “significant litigation,” and we’ve not backed off from those. But it may not have been an accurate assessment anyway. Says Thompson,
Proponents of this bill [FFAA] claim that it will somehow result in less litigation.… But the opposite is true. The bill would lead to more litigation by providing less clarity about the balance Congress first struck between religious liberty and nondiscrimination protections a half century ago in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The courts have spent the past 65 years interpreting that balance and implementing existing law and this proposal would upend that carefully developed body of law in the service of expanding discrimination against LGBTQ people.
Still, there appears no danger that a church will be forced to hire a homosexual pastor or Bible teacher. The 1964 Civil Rights Act restricted religious employers from making hiring decisions concerning positions that weren’t religious, such as janitors. In 1972 the amendment was broadened so that religious employers could use religious criteria for selecting employees whose duties are non-religious. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act contains the same broad exemption, as does Bettina Krause’s favorite, the Freedom for All Act. That’s where things still stand. Gorsuch acknowledged as much in his opinion:
This Court has also recognized that the First Amendment can bar the application of employment discrimination laws “to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers.” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U. S. 171, 188 (2012). And Congress has gone a step further yet in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), 107 Stat. 1488, codified at 42 U. S. C. §2000bb et seq. That statute prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion unless it demonstrates that doing so both furthers a compelling governmental interest and represents the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. §2000bb–1. Because RFRA operates as a kind of super statute, displacing the normal operation of other federal laws, it might supersede Title VII’s commands in appropriate cases.
Two things puzzle me about the church’s response to Bostock v. Clayton County. First, why they think the decision is threatening in light of what it actually says, and second, why—in light of either their 2015 Statement on Human Sexuality or the gospel—they want to roll back protections for LGBTQ+ people from the 1964 standard to the more restrictive FFAA standard. Do we want our churches firing a janitor for being gay? Is that the gospel?
And if religious duties are the criteria, we’d better accept that there are a great many congregations that will no longer have organists and choir directors.
Prophecy or Preservation?
I confess that I see no reason why we couldn’t have gay ministers who live by the moral standards that we hold. We’ve certainly have had plenty of heterosexual pastors who don’t live by the moral standards we hold. Many are still employed.
I asked at the top why it is that our leaders are always dragging behind the church rather than leading it. I think the answer is that they try to preserve rather than be prophetic. To be prophetic means to take the principles of our faith and apply them to new situations that changing times present to us. Instead, denominational leaders seem to be always pulling us back, ignoring the present challenges and trying to placate those members who live in an imaginary perfect past.
Repeatedly the Bible speaks of our advocating on behalf of those who are “despised and rejected of men,” as was Jesus. The remedy in that case was that God “laid on Him the iniquity of us all,” which in Christian soteriology makes salvation ridiculously accessible—but, apparently, doesn’t confer that same accessibility to the church. I don’t know if homosexual practice is a sin, but if it is, it is only one of many sins we tolerate in the church, and probably not the worst one. We as a church are not here to judge, but to help. I find the GC/NAD statement not only a misunderstanding of civil rights law and the SCOTUS decision, but a rejection of the principles of the gospel.
It may not matter to some Seventh-day Adventists that the denomination’s tepid acceptance of gay people—which amounts to rejection as it is practiced—puts us on the wrong side of history. It may seem the right thing to do, even as it seemed right at one time to exclude and discriminate against black people.
But make no mistake: it is saying to LGBTQ+ people that the denomination really doesn’t care about them unless they change. And if it doesn’t, why bother to try to make us think it does?
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today