by Brent Wright
The passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 2015 and the uproar that surrounded it have had me reflecting on this important question for all of us to consider: What kind of neighbors will we be?
We’re living in a time when fear is a constant companion in our civic community and the world beyond. Terrorism and street violence, economic vulnerability and political corruption present themselves at every turn. For some, fears of moral decline and government overreach have been particularly pernicious; both of these fires have been stoked by recent changes in societal attitudes about the place of LGBT people in our common life. As acceptance of homosexuality as a human trait analogous to heterosexuality has grown, laws prohibiting same-sex marriage are seen as the acts of discrimination they are, and those laws are melting away in the glare of the Constitution. This and many other progressive developments are leaving social conservatives feeling like an unprotected minority in need of legal defense against a government that might force them to act against their moral convictions.
Enter the federal and state RFRAs, which seek to protect individual rights. Because of the lack of explicit protections for LGBT citizens against discrimination in Indiana, the RFRA as passed by the General Assembly in late March has the effect of legalizing discrimination under the guise of religious freedom.
This is not a new idea in America. It’s the idea we fought against and outlawed in the civil rights movement half a century ago. Civil rights legislation limited the freedom of American citizens in order to prevent discrimination in the public sphere. As a nation, we chose the common value of equal treatment for all.
Today, we are revisiting that conversation. Should a business owner or a public servant have the right to refuse service to a same-sex couple? Should a person’s First Amendment right to freedom of religion trump the right of all people to be treated equally, without discrimination?
When we ended legal racial segregation in America, we proclaimed a resounding “No!” to those questions. The answer hasn’t changed, even when this means a religious person may need to act against his or her religious conviction to serve a gay person. Just as we said in the 1960s to those who believed racial segregation was God’s plan for humanity, we still say no to discrimination.
To allow discrimination of any type for any reason in our public interactions is un-American. At the very heart of our separation from Great Britain was the concept that all people are created equal. We have struggled for as long as we have existed to live this value fully, but it is at our very core as Americans: all people have dignity that must be respected, and discrimination is a most fundamental sin in our civic morality.
Mature religion—of every stripe—does not uphold exclusion and discrimination as a holy act. Discrimination is most certainly un-Christian. Jesus was very clear with his life and his teaching: Boundaries based on righteousness were the opposite of the way of God. If there is any preferential treatment in God’s realm, it is in favor of those considered morally impure or who are pushed to the margins of their culture.
The deepest question we face is not a legal one or a political one. It’s a moral question about what kind of community we will be. Will we be a community that allows mistreatment of some of our neighbors by others, or will we stand up for just treatment of all? Will we be a community of separate groups that never overlap and listen to one another, or will we be a community that celebrates and embraces diversity with genuine curiosity and willingness to grow?
Will we be a community of exclusion or one of inclusion? Will we be a community run by fear, or a community characterized by trust?
Here’s a way forward for all of us: Love thy neighbor. Reach out and get to know your neighbors. Look for their beauty and giftedness. Learn their stories (everyone has a story!). Understand what inspires them and drives them to be their best. You don’t have to take on their points of view, but just be proactive in getting to know them.
For all of us, that’s easy with some people and difficult with others. What people might you have a hard time reaching out to? Would you rather chew aluminum foil than spend an hour listening to the views of some specific group? That’s important information; pay attention to it. Is it LGBT people? Republicans? Slobs? Uptight rich people? Welfare recipients? Liberals? If it’s hard to imagine having a person-to-person conversation with someone from the group that bothers you, you’re seeing something about yourself. This is an opportunity for personal growth! There’s something in you that is preventing you from experiencing all that life has to offer. Stretch. Reach out. Listen. And let the wall you’ve unconsciously (or maybe consciously) built begin to crumble. For your own sake, for your kids’ sakes, for our community’s sake, and for our nation’s sake, be a proactive neighbor. Discover the joy that comes from familiar walls crumbling before your eyes and new friends standing on the other side.
Rev. Brent Wright is the pastor of Broad Ripple United Methodist Church.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2015 issue of the magazine.