Trans Rights & Religious Liberty Are Not in Conflict
Transgender people across the country need and deserve the strong legal protections offered by The Equality Act, but many are falsely claiming it will limit religious liberty. A guest post from a transgender pastor clarifies why The Equality Act is good for both LGBTQ people and people of faith.
By Rev. Dr. Gwendolyn Howard
The prospect of providing clear civil rights protection to LGBTQ people has been making some anti-transgender groups very anxious. This sentence should not be surprising news (unless perhaps you’ve been stranded on a remote island and talking to a volleyball with Tom Hanks for the last 20 years) as many of these groups — like the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation — have been increasingly vocal about their distress for some time. The precipitating incident causing specific consternation this time is the possibility that The Equality Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in the House and Senate earlier this month, could actually pass in the House of Representatives.
The act would explicitly add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in civil rights law, and some anti-transgender groups are claiming that this would be an affront to their “religious liberty” and that it would not allow them (and like-minded ideologues) to hide behind the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act of 1993. In other words, they’re saying that it is part of their religious practice to discriminate and any prohibition of that impedes them from practicing their faith.
There are two ways to look at these arguments:
First of these is through the lens of civil society. One of the building blocks of this country has been the freedom to practice one’s religion. But is that principle an absolute? Doesn’t the right to swing my fist end where another person’s nose begins?
Of course, the state has often tried to accommodate religious practice as much as reasonably possible when it didn’t seriously harm others in the community. For example, since the time of World War II, the US government has offered an alternative service program for those people who are religious pacifists. During the years of Prohibition, Christian churches which used wine as part of their worship were allowed by law enforcement to obtain it.
In each of these cases, the religious practitioners were not required to change their beliefs, but instead, an accommodation was made to allow for the practice of that belief while not seriously interfering with the rights of others. Alternative service was not killing, but it was service, and regulated alcohol acquisition was not buying all you could afford but it was allowing for ritual use.
Those who fear the Equality Act are implying, intentionally or not, it is a sincerely held tenet of the Christian faith that one ought to be allowed to discriminate against such “sinful” people in business and public life. As a transgender woman myself, I’m certainly aware of people who feel this way. If one of them owns a shop in the mall, for example, and there are public restrooms in their shop, I would expect they might not want me to use their ladies’ room. In fact, many might refuse to even serve a transgender person, let alone hire me for a job.
But as a member of the public, I ought to be afforded the same civil rights as every other person.
When members of society can’t freely work, learn, find a home, or enjoy public spaces or services because of who they are, we all suffer. How should we respond when claims of “free exercise” would inflict harm to others and to society at large? For one thing, the shop owner can continue to believe that I’m an abhorrent, sinful person (after all, I don’t have a much higher opinion of them, either). They can refuse to invite me to their home or their church. But as long as they also want to do business with the public, they are going to have to follow the rules which are part of society’s price for engaging in commerce in the community — respecting the rights of others.
Of course, there is a second way to look at the arguments of some conservative Christians which goes beyond the rules of society. Is such discrimination actually a proper part of Christian belief, or is it just an excuse to justify bad behavior against a group that these conservatives dislike?
I certainly can’t fully know what’s in another person’s heart. And I recognize that what and how people believe must ultimately be their own business. But, from what I know of Christianity, saying that you should treat already-marginalized people as something less than fully human, seems a bit weird. I won’t play the game of trying to throw around Bible verses to bolster my position as I outdo my opponents with a theological flourish. That sort of argumentation just leads down rabbit holes that one can never quite escape from.
Rather, I take a more “macro” view. Looking at the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, one does begin to see basic themes which flow through the verses. One such theme, I believe, is that God is Love. Another theme is that all human beings have worth and are deserving of dignity. The beliefs these conservatives wish to be allowed to act upon, seem to me to be the antithesis of the essential Christian message. Somehow, I just cannot imagine Jesus being pleased with people who have a need to be abusive to others who are different, all in his name.
This brings us back to the beginning: There are people who are fighting against civil rights for our community because they say their religious faith demands they discriminate in public and the law should let them do it. Some days it’s almost enough to make you want to move to a remote island. Perhaps Tom Hanks is there. Maybe there’s a volleyball to talk to.
Rev. Dr. Gwendolyn Howard is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister who’s served churches in Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts. In addition to having been adjunct faculty at various colleges and universities, she’s also a clinical social worker with a small private practice. As an activist, she was among those working to get Rhode Island to add “gender identity and expression” to civil rights laws in 2001 (the second state in the US to do so). She and Patricia, her spouse of 38 years, live in Southern New England.