What Religious Freedom and What is Discrimination?

The recent Supreme Court decision regarding the rights of Hobby Lobby have echoed throughout public opinion, with defenders on the right and critics on the left. The 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that there shall be no laws passed that would abridge on the freedom of religious expression. The courts have a long history of cases of how to interpret that amendment: how absolute it is and when the public interest overrides it. The courts therefore have held that there are some limits to religious activities but have been more open in terms of religious beliefs. The debate is when the right to believe what you want comes into conflict with the impact of how your expression of those beliefs may impact the rights of others. Does the amendment allow you to discriminate against others based on your religious beliefs? The courts generally have said that does not apply in terms of voting rights, employment, etc., but have been more circumspect in terms of property rights.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not mention LGBT people as one of the protected classes, and the current argument about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act is that some versions allow for exceptions based upon religious beliefs. In other words, if I believe that it is OK to discriminate against you because you’re gay or lesbian or transgender, then I’m allowed to do so because my rights trump yours.

The narrow debate over religious beliefs and expression ignore the context in which the 1st Amendment was written. At that time the common situation in most countries was that of an official state-sanctioned religion. Everyone was required to observe the practices of the official religion and pay taxes to support it. In many European countries that is still the case. In England, there were narrow exceptions for dissenters who were allowed to practice certain aspects of their beliefs as long as they didn’t conflict with the official religion.

The founding fathers said that there must be a separation of church and state and that no one religion may be the official church of the state and that everyone must be allowed to establish his or her own church and to practice the dogma of that church. They did not want a theocracy such as exists in Iran. So we have Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and hundreds of Protestant denominations that function within the US without restrictions. Churches are exempt from paying taxes although religious individuals are not. The debate sometimes has focused on exactly what constitutes a church. If I have a congregation of 10 people who meet in my house, is that a church? What if a church operates a business? (See the following article from the Advocate: Advocate Commentary )

Because the federal government cannot impose laws upon our religious expression does that mean that churches, religious-supported organizations such as hospitals, schools, and universities are free to discriminate? What about corporations, which the Supreme Court has now declared to have the same rights as people, although some folks interpret to mean that legally they are real persons rather than some artificially contrived legal construct. If you carried that to its logical conclusion then you might say that corporations are exempt from paying taxes if that is the religious belief of their board of directors. In the Hobby Lobby case the exception was made because they were “closely-held,” i.e. privately owned rather than public corporations. Well, once you start unraveling the legal strings then the whole system collapses.

It is not my intention to debate the Hobby Lobby case since I am not qualified to comment on the legal arguments. In my opinion when religiously based organizations try to stretch their exemptions from federal laws too far then they weaken the entire structure of separation of church and state. When they claim that they are without exception above the law, then that rationale weakens the concept of the rule of law in this country.

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Finding Our Way in the Methodist Church

Last week I attended the annual conference of the United Methodist Church in North Carolina. I helped host the exhibit of the Reconciling United Methodists group, and we received a lot of interest, comments, and questions. Perhaps part of that was due to the fact that we were the first table as you entered the Greenville Convention Center from the parking lot, and secondly because we gave out free water and snacks. Even those who disagreed with us came by for water and goodies so at least we reached some level of their consciousness. I set a record of one 40-minute conversation with an earnest and questioning young man who raised the pointed question of whether homosexuality is a sin. He couldn’t get a straight (pardon the pun) answer from our bishop, and the same is true about a new book that was distributed at the Cokesbury store at the conference. Titled Finding Our Way: Love and Law in the United Methodist Church, the small paperback book includes an introduction and three sections: options, responses, and steps. It includes commentaries by eight UMC bishops on the issue of the controversy about homosexuality, including ordination, marriage, church trials, the Discipline (the official doctrine of the UMC), the role and the institution of General Conference (held every four years), and suggestions for bridging the breach that has developed over the past 42 years since it was first discussed at General Conference in 1972. But for all the posturing, logical debate, and search for unity, none of them directly addressed the issue of whether homosexuality is a sin. They frequently quoted the wording of the Discipline that it is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” which still dances around the question. Several recent books directly address the issue by citing the so-called “gotcha” Bible scriptures that are quoted as addressing the issue. Some challenge whether these scriptures are citing same sex practices or discussing temple prostitution, gang rape, cultural norms of the 1st Century, or historical Christian traditions. After all, the traditional marriage in Bible times was polygamy. While I view it as counter productive to debate various interpretations of these scriptures because you are unlikely to change anyone’s interpretation of them and thus waste time that could be addressed to other issues, the debate over church dogma ultimately depends upon how the church’s doctrine posits its polity based on these scriptures. A recent book review in Christianity Today predictably challenged Mathew Vines interpretation in his book God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships (see my blog post of May 19th.) Thus, the theologians will contain to debate the scriptures as they have done for centuries, and the conflict between orthodoxy and so-called heresy will continue as it has done for more than 2,000 years. Although the conflict started with the very beginning in the establishment of the Christian church after the death of Jesus Christ (he was a practicing Jew), it reached its nadir in the 16th Century with the Inquisition. Fortunately, we’re not putting people on the rack in the current debate, but we’re still doing a lot of damage not only to individual lives but also to organized religion that is struggling to discover its relevance in today’s society. If we continue to be preoccupied with internal debates over dogma while the world dies of starvation not only for food but also for salvation, we are being sidetracked from our mission. So some people say just quit the debate or go away or form another denomination or just listen to the Holy Spirit to resolve the conflict. The Holy Spirit seems to have been silent in our discernments at conferencing in the United Methodist Church, and I’m not sure that bishops’ contributions have clarified or obscured the issue. It seemed to me there was a lot of pontificating, but then I guess that’s what Bishops do. I found it interesting that only one quoted the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Are we here to maintain order and the status quo, or are we here to grow the church in every sense of the word?

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Filed under book reviews., gay christians

God and the Gay Christian

Two years ago Matthew Vines posted a video on YouTube titled “The Gay Debate: The Bible and Homosexuality” that went viral. This spring he followed up with a book titled “God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.” It was written from an Evangelical Christian’s point-of-view, and many Evangelicals hav challenged his interpretations of the scriptures since he does not follow the literalist tradition. Several years ago Jack Rogers, former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church USA, published a similar book challenging the traditional interpretations of the “gotcha” scriptures that often are cited as the basis for condemning homosexuality.

Vines’ book has a broader scope that just another reiteration of the scriptures. He also cites his personal experiences and those of other LGBT persons who have been discriminated against and hurt by the church for its exclusionary polity. It’s not just a question of whether or not homosexuality is a sin, but what impact does the judgment of the church and its officials have upon the lives of those it chooses to exclude. In reality, the impact has been devastating on thousands of people, many of whom have chosen suicide because they could not reconcile their Christian beliefs with their own sexuality.

He traces the history of the church is dealing with other controversies, such as whether or not the earth is the center of the universe and whether or not the church should accept slavery. He devotes an entire chapter to the issue of celibacy and whether or not it should be enforced or voluntary. I won’t belabor the points he makes on each of the scripture citations. You really need to read the book to follow his logic, references, and historical citations to understand his conclusions both from a theological and secular point-of-view. Of course, I believe that he has reached the right conclusions, but I am not a theologian. However, many other contemporary theologians have agreed with him.

He uses the terms “affirming” and “non-affirming” to describe the opposing views of homosexuality, and he comes from the Presbyterian tradition. The Presbyterians have dealt with this issue as long as the Methodists but have made much greater progress in coming to some kind of reconciliation. The Methodists have been fighting over it for 40 years and still condemn homosexuality in their official church dogma, known as The Discipline.

I think he has raised the ire of the Evangelicals because he has portrayed himself as one of them. He claims that the Evangelical tradition is more than just a literalist interpretation of the Bible but is an energetic and forceful movement for Christian evangelism and thus by excluding a large minority of the population they are weakening their mission to bring the Gospel to all.

He also addresses the Gay Christians in that they have a right to be both fully sexual beings and to express that through their actions in committed relationships and to expect to be fully accepted into the church and not relegated to second-class status. He sees the controversy over this issue as yet another reformation of the church to make it more dynamic and closer to the Kingdom of God.

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Knocking Over the Tables of the Money Changers in the Temple

My Twitter feed each day is filled with reports of people using religion to justify their racism, homophobia, jingoism, and neo-Nazi beliefs and actions. These reports challenge and chastise these people correctly for their abuse of the name of God and ask that people shame them or even boycott them. I know that Jesus expressed his anger at the abuse of the rituals of the Temple by the moneychangers who took advantage of the pilgrims. He noted that they profited from religion without understanding its intention.

But that was in a different culture and time and before the proliferation of mass media, and I wonder if giving these crackpots notoriety is the best way to deal with them. Don’t they seek media attention to spread their messages, and even if we condemn them aren’t we in effect helping to spread their messages? Why not just ignore them, or at least not give them free publicity?

Does that mean the only option is to do nothing in the face of such outrages? No, but I suggest direct action rather than an automatic, in-direct, and ineffective reaction. Let’s deal with these folks face-to-face, through their pocketbook, or by challenging their supporters. The media loves controversy, so why does there always have to be “another side” of the story? Some statements are just flagrant lies or deliberate mis-information so that they just don’t justify a legitimate point-of-view. When someone maims or kills someone and then justifies their actions because of their beliefs, they’re either insane or evil fanatics. We want to know why people do terrible things and what is their motivation. Well, sometimes there isn’t any —they’re just crazy.

Which raises the issue of how to deal with gun violence, homelessness, as well as racism and homophobia. Trying to deal with the just the symptoms of a dysfunctional society is a hopeless effort, and we must come to terms with the root cause of these depravations. We must create new and effective systems of mental health treatment programs. That will require most than just providing insurance coverage for these treatments; it means new programs that are not just window-dressing but are truly effective in making substantial and permanent changes in people’s lives. The status of mental health treatment programs in the United States is a disgrace, especially so in North Carolina.

So rather than just re-tweet some reaction to an obviously stupid statement or action, get involved in the National Organization for Mental Illness (NAMI) with a local chapter or lobby for public funding of services to get people off the streets and help rebuild their lives. Our local relief non-profit agencies do a good job, but they simply are overwhelmed and don’t have the resources to cope with the vast needs.

Yes, it will require education for several generations to convert some of these misapprehensions of religion, as we saw with the issue of slavery, but it can be done. But the solution requires more than just education, it requires a re-orientation of some people’s basic psychological make-up so that they are in touch with reality and the true nature of humans to love and need one another rather than hate and kill each other.

 

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LinkedIn Tips

I’ve been a member of LinkedIn since 2006, and when I first started I was fairly active in a handful of discussion groups. As my interests changed and my writing moved from short-form to long-form, I didn’t change my groups or update my connections. The strategy then was to establish yourself as an expert in a particular field by actively participating in a group not only by commenting but also responding to requests for information.

When the recession hit in 2008 and my freelance writing jobs dried up, I backed off my magazine writing because it didn’t pay. Writers with more current credentials and connections still had difficulty finding assignments, and aside from the major national markets most editors didn’t pay a living wage. In the local market, most expected you to write simply for a byline. So I let LinkedIn lie fallow the same way I did my web site and Google Adwords. There was no point in getting a higher page ranking if it didn’t produce any income.

At the Independent Communicators Alliance ICA-Triangle monthly meeting last night William Blackmon, social media consultant and LinkedIn consultant, Apogee Social Media Group re-awakened my interest in LinkedIn LinkedIn through his excellent presentation. Rather than focusing on establishing his expertise, he has focused on building online and personal relationships. He has focused on the local Triangle market and has built 5,000 connections (compared with my 60). I asked how he manages to maintain meaningful contacts with that many people, and obviously he devotes a lot of time to it. I also learned that LinkedIn allows you to add private notes on each connection, such as when and where you met and other personal information. You also can prioritize your connections so that you aren’t blinded with a daily onslaught of meaningless information. In other words, he has built a very sophisticated online Roledex.

LinkedIn has grown a lot in sophistication as well as numbers so it is more useful not only in content but also in the options it provides. He focused on the mechanics of LinkedIn rather than on strategies, and that was helpful because he explained a lot of tricks I didn’t know about. I think the most important thing I learned was that the eight groups I belong to no longer serve my needs and that I should consider researching different groups and follow different companies. He has found a lot of serendipity in being open and responding to requests for connections because you never know when or how they may be useful.

It’s not a question of the numbers game of getting the most connections but in maintaining those connections. To me the unresolved question was whether the time required to do that pays off in results. Obviously it has for him, but then he also does a lot of public presentations that also builds connections. He has a much broader base of potential clients than I have, and my problem has been a basic marketing issue of defining my niche market and then discovering the best way to reach them. In the old days that used to be going to writers’ conferences and not only meeting other writers but also editors. That is still an option, but one that is limited because of the time and expense.

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My recent move

I’ve just spent the past three months packing, unpacking, and moving from one apt. to another in the same city. I spent three weeks just cleaning out the closets. AT&T U-Verse left me without an Internet connection or home phone service for a month while they made excuses in transferring services. I was dependent upon my iPhone for everything, including making payments since I had misplaced my checkbook in the move. Fortunately I ended up with only one late payment fee. The new apt. is smaller, cheaper, more accessible, bright and fresh, and better built. I tried Craigslist without any luck so I gave away lots of stuff, but even so the new place is very crowded. I was in the old apt. for 12 years so it was time for a move, and I downsized to prepare for the next decade as I age out. I haven’t even done my income tax return yet so the move has totally absorbed most of my time.

The 4th season of Dowton Abbey was short and disappointing. All the story lines seemed to limp along in limbo. The first episode of Selfridge was a set piece for a whole series of controversies. I haven’t read anything because I also was involved in an 8-week course on mindful-based stress reduction (MBSR) at Duke Integrative Medicine that involved 2 ½-hr classes each week plus reading assignments and five audio CD’s. It was helpful in dealing with some of the stresses associated with the move.

Like most of the East Coast we have had a late spring although we missed most of the snows, and it has been unusually cold. The frequent swings in the weather flared up my arthritis so it has been a struggle to continue my daily morning exercises that keep me somewhat flexible. I’m finding it increasing difficult to walk or stand for an extended period of time.

Justin Lee with the Gay Christian Network hosted their annual conference in Chicago this year and is on tour in Los Angeles now so he hasn’t been in Raleigh much in recent months. I track the topic on Google Alerts, but the only real news has been the first gay marriages in England and Wales. Much of the gay chatter on Twitter is negative news, and I say just ignore the biggots and don’t give them free publicity. In the US, the battle has moved to the states, and the ban is being over-turned in several. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) continues to languish in Congress after 15 years of debate, and the President has not yet made an Executive Order except to ban discrimination by federal contractors.

 

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Battle for the Methodist Church

Sunday, Feb 9th, Rachel Zoll posted an article on the Associated Press a very good historical summary of the issue of gay marriage and the controversy within the United Methodist Church. She noted that while other mainline Protestant denominations slowly have been moving to accept gays into the clergy as well as offer rites to same sex couples, the Methodist Church for 40 years has continued to be divided on this issue.

She quoted from the Book of Discipline and its restrictions on gays and outlined some of the recent trials of pastors who have not observed those restrictions. She draws the battle lines between the Reconciling Ministries Network, The Good News, and the Wesleyan Covenant Network with their opposing views on the issue.

She gave a good and brief explanation of how the Methodist General Conference works as the legislative body of the denomination but skipped over the details of how the Judicial Council and the local bishops decide who and when to prosecute for violations of the restrictions. In fact, the church trials are highly arbitrary and depend on many factors. The divisiveness is not just between the delegates to the General Conference but also among the Council of Bishops and among the clergy, 1,100 of whom signed on to a resolution to support gay marriage. Many retired bishops and clergy have supported removing the restrictions as a matter of “biblical conscience”, and also because of the fact that they’re no longer subject to the church politics and trying to keep their jobs.

In addition to loss of credentials for clergy who are found guilty in church trials (which prevents them from serving as elders but does not prevent them from serving as local staff), they also lose their retirement and insurance benefits that many worked for years to receive.  So it is a very severe penalty and not just a slap on the wrist.

Rev. Frank Schaefer was “ex-communicated” at his trial last year and has since preached as a guest pastor at Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, and at the UCC Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, TX.  His trial and subsequent appearances have received national publicity. A much earlier trial of Rev. Jimmy Creech resulted in the publication last year of his book: Adams’Gift: A Memoir of a Pastor’s Calling to Defy the Church’s Persecution of Lesbians and Gays that not only challenges the church’s position on the issue but also on the highly arbitrary and inconsistent manner in which it is applied to both clergy and lay people. He toured around the nation in 2013 promoting the book and speaking in many pulpits.

Some are calling for an open split in the denomination similar to what occurred prior to the Civil War over the issue of slavery.   The denomination was not re-united until 1939, and in 1969 joined with the United Brethren to become the United Methodist Church.  The next General Conference will be held in 2016 and probably will again consider this issue.

 

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