Progressive religious leaders in Tennessee have joined forces to denounce a slate of bills that would curb the rights of the state’s queer residents.
More than 120 rabbis and pastors from across Tennessee have added their names to a statement opposing the anti-LGBTQ proposals, which were introduced in the state’s Republican-dominated legislature this year.
“They promote discrimination rather than justice and demean the worth of LGBTQ people in our state,” the statement declares. “We call on people of good will to join us in speaking out for basic fairness.”
Rev. Mary Louise McCullough, pastor at Nashville’s Second Presbyterian Church and one of the statement’s signers, called the bills “regressive politically, theologically and intellectually.”
“Being a person of faith means speaking out when necessary to resist and protect people from this kind of hostile act on the part of the state,” McCullough told HuffPost.
The six bills would provide legal protections for Tennesseans with conservative religious beliefs to discriminate against the LGBTQ community in various ways. LGBTQ activists like the Tennessee Equality Project and their allies say the legislation would trample the civil rights of queer Tennesseans.
The bills have a wide range of specific goals ― including banning same-sex marriage in the state, protecting adoption agencies that don’t want to place kids with LGBTQ parents, and making it a crime for transgender people to use locker rooms that match their gender identities.
Rev. Paul Purdue, senior pastor at Belmont United Methodist Church, said he signed the joint statement because he believes legislation that categorically denies certain groups the ability to adopt, get married or conduct business is “oppressive and unjust.”
“Jesus’ great commandment is to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves,” Purdue told HuffPost. “If we love people, we offer them the same rights that we expect.”
The clergy statement, which was organized by the Tennessee Equality Project, sought to gather an array of voices from across the state. While the project said some of the signers were evangelical leaders, most were not.
According to the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of adults in Tennessee are evangelical Protestants. Studies have consistently shown that, compared to other religious groups in the U.S., white evangelicals tend to strongly oppose advances in LGBTQ rights.
A recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute found that only 47 percent of adults in Tennessee oppose religion-based service refusals ― meaning they believe that small business owners shouldn’t be allowed to deny service to lesbian or gay customers based on religious belief. Nationwide, about 57 percent of adults oppose religiously based service refusals.
At the same time, Tennesseans appear to be supportive of nondiscrimination protections for LGBT Americans. About 64 percent of Tennesseans surveyed by PRRI said they favor laws that would protect LGBT people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing. Sixty-nine percent of Americans said the same.
Rabbi Joshua Kullock, of Nashville’s West End Synagogue, said legislation that punishes people for their sexual orientation is an “affront to their human dignity.”
“It might be that legislators find inspiration for their laws in ancient religious texts and traditions but, as they do so, they are also overlooking other religious texts and traditions promoting love, inclusion and understanding,” Kullock, a Conservative rabbi, told HuffPost. “I’d rather base my religious convictions on those latter values.”
Rabbi Shana Mackler, a Reform Jewish leader from Nashville and the child of a gay parent, said the bills feel like an assault on her family. Mackler said her dad and his partner stood by her side when she was ordained and when she got married, and they are now loving grandparents to her children. She officiated at their wedding a few years ago.
“As a family we have celebrated and mourned, lived and loved like any other family,” Mackler, who serves at The Temple–Congregation Ohabai Sholom, told HuffPost. “This hateful legislation feels like a personal attack.”
As a religious leader in Tennessee, the rabbi said she is sometimes confronted by people who claim to uphold “family values” but don’t seem to value human rights, personal autonomy or diversity. That’s why she said it’s important for progressive people of faith to speak out.
“Hate is not a family value,” Mackler said. “Love, protection, safety, respect, inclusion, hospitality, equality ― these are family values. They are religious values.”
“And if we don’t bring these, our progressive, inclusive religious values, into the public arena with us, we will not move forward,” she added. “Instead, we will abandon the public square to those offering a more myopic view.”
Chris Sanders, the Tennessee Equality Project’s executive director, told HuffPost that he hopes the clergy statement gives people an opportunity to rethink whether their own anti-LGBTQ stances are really supported by their faith. The declaration is also meant to comfort queer Tennesseans.
“It’s important for LGBTQ people to know leaders are using their voices to defend us at a time when some are trying to use religion to codify discrimination,” Sanders said. “It reminds us we’re not alone in this fight.”