Do we need religion to win LGBT equality?

For a protest targeting the lack of a civil right — marriage for same-sex couples — much of the event had the air of a religious rite.

“For many, this is an act of spiritual witness as much as it is a political act and I believe it’s vital that they have the robust and visible support of faith leaders and people of faith as they do this,” said Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality.

For most of the more than 40 years since the Stonewall Riots kicked off the modern gay rights movement, debates over LGBT issues were cast as gay people on one side, religious people on the other.

The “God vs. gays” divide was never completely true, as there have always been both religious LGBT people and non-gay religious people who support LGBT equality.

But it has become especially inaccurate over the last decade, as mainstream religious denominations moved toward gay inclusion and gay rights organizations made a concerted effort to include faith and religion on their agendas.

“The terrain in the religious world is changing quickly,” Beach-Ferrara said. “The debate about homosexuality and LGBT rights is ultimately rooted in diverging religious beliefs; for many years, religious voices condemning homosexuality were loudest in this debate, but that’s changing quickly as more faith traditions are speaking and acting publicly to support the full equality of LGBT people.”

Fighting faith with faith

To be certain, religion remains a battleground. While some 70 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual people identify as Christian, according to a 2009 survey by the Barna Group, a Gallup poll in December 2012 found that “religion/Bible says its wrong” remains the most-cited reason for opposing gay marriage.

“The greatest deterrent domestically and globally to our capacity to change hearts and minds on LGBT issues remains religious opposition,” said Sharon Groves, director of the Religion & Faith Program at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT political group.

The National Lesbian & Gay Task Force also cites specific programs related to religion, as do many smaller LGBT groups.

HRC’s effort was launched in 2005 to counter the Religious Right, Groves said.

“It was created in direct response to the 2004 elections where ‘family values’ were lauded as on the side of the religious right,” she said. “We knew as a community that we had to showcase the great work that was being done in religious communities and create a drumbeat for future work in those spaces.”

Even organizations dedicated to keeping government and religion apart recognize the role of faith leaders in advocating for LGBT equality.

“I think for many years, if not decades, religion was the foremost enemy to LGBT civil rights,” said Rev. Steven C. Baines, assistant field director for religious outreach for Americans United for Separation of Church & State.

“This has changed greatly due to the tireless efforts of so many s/heroes of the faith who told our stories, who never gave up hope that people’s hearts can be changed, and who truly believed that God was bigger than any prejudice or oppression,” he noted.

While the Campaign for Southern Equality is not a religious organization, faith plays an integral role in the organization’s efforts, Beach-Ferrara said.

“We do talk about faith in our work and include interfaith religious elements in the We Do Campaign,” she said, “as a way to express how people’s faith beliefs motivate them to act for full equality.”

‘War on religious freedom’

Religious conservatives, once winning in the culture war, now find themselves facing opposition both in the courts and the court of public opinion. And with appeals to “family values” no longer working in the general public, many now seek to reframe the debate as one over “religious freedom.”

Take the recent Georgia case of Jennifer Keeton, a counseling student at Augusta State University who was expelled after she failed to complete a remediation plan designed to help her learn more about LGBT people. Keeton had stated that she would counsel a patient that homosexuality is immoral, a violation of ethical polices that require counselors not to impose their own moral attitudes on their clients.

Keeton’s attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund argued that her First Amendment right to freedom of religion was violated. Keeton lost her lawsuit, but conservative legal foundations are using the same strategy in several others.

With some gay rights opponents claiming that having to comply with pro-LGBT laws or policies violates their right to religious freedom, is it dangerous to frame arguments for LGBT civil rights in religious terms?

“The backlash that I think people hear or read about comes from those who use the lives and loves of LGBT people as a political wedge,” says Baines of Americans United. “This so-called ‘war on religious freedom’ is nothing more than the same snake oil that has been used by opponents to opponents to incite fear amongst a certain political base.”

Still, LGBT advocates need to be cautious, said HRC’s Groves.

“I think we need to be careful not to argue for a shift in public policy on the basis of faith,” she said, while adding, “The religious right, however, does not hold a monopoly on religious freedom.

“Many mainline Protestant and Jewish denominations and an increasing number of ordinary people of faith watch their religious freedom curtailed when they are told they cannot advocate for LGBT equality,” Groves said. “Arguing for LGBT equality from a faith perspective is about engaging hearts and mind, it isn’t about making policy based on religion.”

Beyond backlash

While “marriage equality is most definitely a church-state separation issue,” the visibility of LGBT people of faith is actually a good answer to the “religious freedom” backlash, Baines said.

“People of faith are worshipping in the same pews as their LGBT friends and neighbors and they have come to realize that their own religious freedom is not threatened when the equality of all is affirmed and celebrated in their communities,” he said. “What is losing in the court of public opinion is the notion that religious belief is a legitimate excuse for prejudice and discrimination.”

For Beach-Ferrara, the benefits of LGBT religious visibility outweigh any drawbacks.

“Some backlash may occur, but the greater truth is that we are expressing fundamental moral truths in the public square, using voices of faith and of conscience,” she said. “Some with different religious beliefs may fear that their rights will be encroached on, but there’s no evidence of that, nor is there an intent to do that.…

“I’m personally prepared to assume the risk of such backlash if it means, for example, that LGBT youth are hearing affirmative religious voices telling them they are whole and equal people,” she said.


Top photo: On Jan. 7, Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara led five couples and more than 50 supporters to the DeKalb County Probate Court to protest Georgia’s law banning gay marriage. While marriage is a civil right, the protest also evoked religious rites through group prayer. (by Dyana Bagby)