So this week I did something I’ve never done before: I went to our state capital with my robe and my stole and two pastor friends to witness against legislation working its way through the statehouse.
Kansas was ablaze last week with incendiary politics. Not that unusual for Kansas, maybe, but even for us this was over the top.
The House passed HB 2453, which you can read here, purporting to address “religious freedoms with respect to marriage.” It proposed that no “individual or religious entity” would be required to “provide any services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges; provide counseling, adoption, foster care and other social services; or provide employment or employment benefits, related to, or related to the celebration of, any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement” if it would be against their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Some Kansas lawmakers, like those in a few other states, are reacting to a tumultuous shift in the landscape of marriage access, as more and more states either expand access to marriage to same-sex couples or are finding their legal bans on same-sex marriage being struck down as unconstitutional.
Here’s how the KC Star summarized the bill’s intent:
Supporters said the bill was intended to address court decisions overturning bans on gay marriage in Utah and Oklahoma and, maybe, one day in Kansas. They believe the state’s ban on gay marriage is in the “cross hairs.”
They said they drew up the legislation to protect the religious liberties of anyone on either side of the same-sex marriage debate. They vehemently denied the bill was a vehicle for discrimination.
They pointed to a number of cases across the country where actions were taken against photographers, bakers and florists who refused to provide service to same-sex weddings.
Consider a few:
• A Colorado judge found last December that a baker discriminated against a gay couple when he refused to bake a wedding cake because he thought homosexuality was a sin. The judge said he couldn’t refuse gay couples again.
• The New Mexico Supreme Court found that a photography business that refused to photograph a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony violated the state’s anti-discrimination law. The business has taken the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
• Vermont innkeepers were sued in 2011 after refusing to host a lesbian couple’s wedding reception. They settled the lawsuit by agreeing to pay a $10,000 civil penalty and agreeing to no longer host any weddings or receptions, according to The Associated Press.
The Kansas bill would bar legal action — government sanctions or civil suits — for people who refuse to provide services relating to marriages or civil unions that are contrary to their faith.
It would allow someone employed with the government or “nonreligious entity” to invoke their faith as a basis for not providing service.
- You’re an innkeeper, and you don’t approve of a couple seeking a room, you could deny accommodation based on this law, or
- You’re a police officer, and you received a call to a domestic abuse situation, you wouldn’t have to take that call if you get there and its a gay couple, or
- You’re a county clerk, and a gay couple approaches your desk seeking a license they’re entitled to under the law, you could refuse to issue it on your religious convictions.
We’ve fought many of these battles before. Imagine allowing any public business or government official to not serve someone because they are black, or because they are Jewish, or because they are an interracial couple. It would be unacceptable. Intolerable. Unjust.
But we have a sizable portion of Kansas that wants to explicitly permit it for LGBTQI individuals or couples, and argue for allowing it in the name of “Religious Freedom”.
Nevermind that religious freedom is about the ability to believe whatever you want (or don’t want) about God, and to gather with others to pray/study/preach/teach the same, free from the state getting in the way. Nevermind that churches/mosques/synagogues/covens are already exempt from this sort of thing. No church will be forced to do or say anything against their deeply held religious convictions, and this law doesn’t impact them.
On the other hand, “religious freedom” is not about someone choosing to exempt themselves from civil laws when they are not acting in a religious capacity. See Marci Glass’ helpful primer on religious freedom here for more on this distinction.
Instead, what this law does is explicitly authorize discrimination, against a persecuted minority. It would render gay and lesbian citizens constantly unsure of whether they could trust equal access to government services or public business. And it carves out an area where religious folk can exempt themselves from public laws everybody else have to follow. If you are going to operate a public business (a bakery or a photography service or a hotel or a restaurant) or work for the government, you ought to be duty bound to serve everyone. You cannot choose who you can serve because of your private prejudices, and law abiding, tax paying citizens ought to expect equal access to public businesses and civic institutions.
(If you cannot open a public business that will serve everyone equally, maybe you shouldn’t be doing that sort of work in the first place, and should do something else instead. This is true in equal measure if you cannot in good conscience offer a hotel room to an interracial couple, or sell your floral arrangements to a muslim or an Atheist, or decide to be a county clerk when an LGBT couple comes seeking what they’re legally entitled to).
So it is unjust as a matter of civil policy, not just abhorrent to people of the Christian Faith who are urged to “love our neighbor as ourself.” (For some more on the latter objections, see this eloquent statement by the Synod of Mid-America, part of the Presbyterian Church (USA) where I serve as a pastor, and this meditation by Micah J Murray to start.)
So we went to the capital to register our concerns, to provide a witness that the Christian Tradition (at its best) doesn’t condone discrimination in civil society, and to thank lawmakers who voted no. Here’s a bit of what we said:
Since we went, we’ve heard that there was a sizable backlash against the bill, that business interests came out strongly against it and that the Senate leadership hit the breaks and killed the bill (at least for now).
This was something of a wake-up call for me. People of faith need to be more pro-active in standing up in the presence of injustice. This is wrong. Regardless of what your faith community says about homosexuality, or what your faith tradition leads you to believe, all people deserve equal access and equal protection under the law. Christians are duty bound not to let their faith be used to justify inequality or exclusion for anyone.
Even without this law, GLBTQI neighbors are second class citizens in Kansas, and will be until we address our human rights law. (You can read the Kansas Acts against Discrimination here.) I’m beginning to think we need something like Idaho’s Add the Words campaign, seeking to add Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity to the list of human rights protections
Someone asked me today about why church people need to be involved in politics. The concern was about crossing a line into partisanship, but really this isn’t about promoting a particular party or particular agenda. Jesus was deeply concerned about the welfare of the polis (the city, our common good, from which our word politics is derived) and accordingly, people of faith have long advocated for public policy because of our faith. To me, the line is crystal clear: the church is called to speak out on behalf of the voiceless, as Christ calls us to do, not to advocate for or against a particular political party or candidate.
Our GLBTQI brothers and sisters have been subjected to enough pain and discrimination, often in the name of Christ. It is time, far past time, for Christians to stand with and for them. I’m committed to equality as my faith compels. Who’s with me?