Religious Freedom on My Mind

Customers walk to a Hobby Lobby store in Oklahoma City, Monday, June 30, 2014. The Supreme Court ruled Monday that employers
Customers walk to a Hobby Lobby store in Oklahoma City, Monday, June 30, 2014. The Supreme Court ruled Monday that employers can hold religious objections that allow them to opt out of the new health law requirement that they cover contraceptives for women. The Hobby Lobby chain of arts-and-crafts stores is by far the largest employer of any company that has gone to court to fight the birth control provision. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Religious freedom is on my mind. In late June, the Supreme Court decided that Hobby Lobby and other "closely held" for-profit corporations can now claim religion as a reason to discriminate against women. Citing "sincerely held beliefs" of the owners, the Supreme Court put many women and their health at the mercy of the religious beliefs of their employers.

Suddenly, those of us who have been fighting for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people realized that we have allowed almost all marriage equality laws to include religious exemptions.

Most of us opined that religious liberty was already built into the Constitution, so what harm would come from reiterating this freedom in these legislative actions if it would win approval by legislatures? Many times, the legislation hinged on just a few votes so it seemed expedient.

Now, we realize religious exemption from the law is a dangerous by-product of religious bigotry, not religious liberty. Now, we see the harm. Systematically, anti-LGBTQ forces repeated and repeated again that their religious freedom would be harmed by LGBTQ equality; our marriages, our jobs, our families somehow harmed them. If they couldn't exclude us, fire us, or destroy our families, their relationship with Jesus would be diminished -- their families would be less valuable.

In my decades of ministry within Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), I have seen the harms of discrimination -- the alienation from families, from faith traditions, and even from our own bodies through self-destruction.

Instead of repenting of these harms, right-wing pundits crank out fake story after fake story of Christians who feel they are being persecuted for their beliefs. No amount of myth busting or official contradictions stops the spread of these stories through social media and forwarded emails.

It is time to blow the whistle on religious demagogues who say they are victims if they are not allowed to take away the rights of others.

With the Hobby Lobby decision, no more than "sincerely held" religious beliefs are now needed to supersede the basic civil right to control your own body. What is to prevent an employer from asking reproductive questions during an interview? Have you now or have you ever used birth control? Have you ever or would you ever consider having an abortion?

It is a short walk from there to allowing employers to screen or fire LGBTQ people with impunity.

Oh, wait, they can do that now.

President Obama is doing what he can to correct this. He is signing an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating against LGBTQ people in hiring. Despite religious conservatives and Republicans pushing Obama to include a sweeping religious exemption, he listened to LGBTQ advocates and pushed back against creeping governmental establishment of religion, which allows discrimination against women and LGBTQ people -- just for starters.

In addition, a proposed act called ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, has been languishing in Congress for decades but is suddenly getting major support from conservatives. Once they realized the power of the religious exemption, they started acting like they cared about protecting LGBTQ jobs.

Quickly, LGBTQ movement leaders including the Taskforce, Lambda Legal, National Center for Lesbian Rights, Transgender Law Center, and other groups announced they would no longer support ENDA with its insidious and ubiquitous religious exemption.

Can we be clear about what religious freedom looks like? Religious freedom for people in the pews of Metropolitan Community Churches means we have:

• Freedom to worship authentically
• Freedom to be in joyful community
• Freedom from being judged
• Freedom to marry whom you love
• Freedom from discrimination
• Freedom to be a faith leader

Sadly, conservatives act like their freedom depends on being able to dominate, define, and demean those who are different from themselves. Despite the damage of theocratic systems ranging from monarchies in Europe to the Taliban of the Near East, conservative Christians are quick to seek a "Christian country" which would enforce "Christian values." But let's be clear, it was Christians warring among themselves for centuries which created a need to disconnect religion from government.

When the Puritans arrived on the shores of the Americas, they sought religious freedom -- for themselves. Puritans wanted to impose their beliefs on everyone, and often pilloried, imprisoned, whipped, and executed people who held different beliefs or broke the rules.

European wars that led to people seeking religious freedom killed millions and wiped out thousands of towns. When religious conflict threatened to erupt in the "New World," the 1649 "Act of Tolerance" was passed to protect Catholics from Puritans. But toleration only went so far, since the "Act of Tolerance" included the death sentence for anyone who denied the divinity of Jesus.

Eventually, freedom of religion was included in the First Amendment. It was both freedom from the establishment of any religion by the government and the freedom to practice your own religion without fear of persecution. The meaning of protecting religious freedom has been shaped as we lived into it.

Today, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and so many others live together under the protection of the United States Constitution and the First Amendment's protection of religion. There will always be religious leaders -- both well-intentioned and nefarious -- who try to impose their religion on others by using the courts or legal actions.

Thomas Jefferson said, "The price of Liberty is eternal vigilance." The Bible is full of exhortations to stand watch, be ready, stay awake, and stay true.

As a Christian, I follow Jesus, who put people before the law and mercy before judgment. As a member of the human community, I pray that we all live together in peace and freedom. It doesn't come easy, but do not fall asleep at this critical time. Stay awake! Stand up for freedom -- not just for yourselves, but for all people.