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The Black church, religious freedom and gay rights

In the Rev. Cedric Harmon’s religious tradition, the prayers offered at church almost always start the same way. Worshippers acknowledge God and then give thanks for life, health, strength and safety, four blessings that every human needs.

“We thank God for those blessings and recognize how core they are,” he said.

The Rev. Harmon reminds people of those prayers when they question why the Black church should fight for LGBTQ civil rights protections. He tells them to stop feeling like gay and transgender Americans are seeking special treatment. What they want, he says, are the same basic blessings you ask for at church.

“The legislation we’re talking about would guarantee access to housing, health care, food and employment — blessings that everyone should have the ability to enjoy,” the Rev. Harmon said during an April 27 webinar titled “The Black Church and LGBTQ Rights.”

The Rev. Harmon, founder and executive director of Many Voices, which works with Black churches to help the LGBTQ community, was referring to proposals currently in front of Congress that would add sexual orientation and gender identity-based nondiscrimination protections to federal civil rights law.

The Equality Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in February 2021, would do so without creating new safeguards for churches and other religious organizations. The Fairness for All Act, on the other hand, attempts to protect LGBTQ individuals and religious organizations that oppose same-sex marriage at the same time.

During the hourlong webinar, the Rev. Harmon and other panelists emphasized the value of this latter approach. Protecting everyone’s rights is a way to live out the belief that we’re all made in the image of God, said Chantelle Anderson, founder of Confidently His, a women-focused group that organizes Bible studies and other events.

“The legislation we’re talking about … aims to love and protect everybody regardless of your beliefs or lifestyle or doctrine or choices,” she said.

It also aims to show that “winner take all” is the wrong way forward, said Justin Giboney, president of the AND Campaign, which helps Christians navigate the political arena. To be the pluralistic country we seek to be, Americans have to be willing to work together.

“The work of democracy requires working through these tough issues with people we disagree with,” he said, adding that he and other panelists were engaged in such an effort. “We have folks on different sides of sexuality issues on this panel.”

There are also folks with a range of views on LGBTQ rights worshipping together in Black churches, the panelists said. But they’re increasingly willing to have tough conversations, said Sontaia Briggs, president of the board of directors for Parity, which works to heal relationships between religious conservatives and the LGBTQ community.

“We’re in the bridge-building stage,” she said.

In the past, many Black churches chose silence over difficult conversations. Not too long ago, the only time you’d hear church members talk about LGBTQ issues was in secret, behind closed doors, Anderson said.

“If any conversations can only be had behind closed doors, it’s a shameful thing. That leads to the shaming of different people,” she said.

As they get involved in current LGBTQ rights debates, Black churches have to atone for those behaviors, Giboney said. He noted that the AND Campaign’s letter to the Senate in support of the Fairness for All Act begins with a lament over how gay and transgender people were treated in Black churches in the past.

“There have been brothers who died alone because the church didn’t step up and step in. And kids who left the church thinking nobody loved them,” he said.

Committing to “stepping up” on behalf of the LGBTQ community does not require adopting new teachings on marriage or sexuality, Anderson said. Churches already teach that preserving human dignity is a good thing.

“No matter what we believe doctrinally, we should all agree that people don’t need to be discriminated against, harassed, abused or killed because of their sexuality or gender identity,” she said.

As of 2021, nearly 8 in 10 Black Protestants (78%) supported laws that would protect members of the LGBTQ community from discrimination, but just 55% supported same-sex marriage, according to Public Religion Research Institute.

Despite that strong level of support for LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections, the Black church’s engagement with modern gay rights debates is still relatively low. Through their participation in the panel and their regular work, Anderson and the other speakers are working to disrupt the status quo.

“I think the Black church can do what the Black church does well: organize and bring people together” to advocate for civil rights, Briggs said.

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