(RNS) — The recently released Department of Justice “religious freedom” order attacks religious freedom by allowing businesses to discriminate in the name of religion. As a Christian, I am dismayed to see some Christian leaders advocating for religious freedom exemption from Jesus’ highest command to love our neighbor.
The religious communities my organization, Faith in Public Life, works with have found ways to honor religious belief while not discriminating. This balanced approach is more consistent with our Constitution and our values.
In Jacksonville, Fla., we worked with religious leaders who held different stances on marriage equality to pass a human rights ordinance that prevented discrimination against LGBT people in housing, employment and public accommodations. While we do not all agree on what our faith says about marriage for LGBT people, we did all agree that if our laws failed to protect their rights and their dignity we were violating God’s commands.
Yet this administration’s guidelines would allow businesses and government employees to pick and choose who they will serve. As a pastor, I have to ask: What religion champions spitting in people’s faces rather than turning the other cheek? How is God’s love shown through public humiliation, hate or depriving LGBT people of a job or services?
The First Amendment of our Constitution protects our right to worship as we see fit and to practice our beliefs as long as we do not harm others. Conservative Christian beliefs on gay marriage are already protected by the Constitution. Our own particular religious beliefs though, should never be forced on others. This delicate balance of religious freedom and the rights of others has enabled diverse religious expression and beliefs to thrive in our vibrant democracy.
Let us not forget that for Southerners, discrimination in the name of religion is all too familiar from the days of the Jim Crow South. In the 1970s the Supreme Court took up the case of a restaurateur who claimed a right to turn blacks away from his establishment because his Christian faith legitimated his racist practices. The Supreme Court ruled against him.
Christians must not be on the wrong side of history. In my home state of Georgia more than 300 religious leaders of all political persuasions and viewpoints on sexuality joined in opposition to legislation that would have allowed discrimination against LGBT people and possibly others.
In his veto speech, Gov. Nathan Deal, who is Baptist and for “traditional marriage,” stated: “What the New Testament teaches us is that Jesus reached out to those who were considered the outcasts, the ones that did not conform to the religious societies’ view of the world. … We do not have a belief in my way of looking at religion that says we have to discriminate against anybody.”
At the same time, right and left supported the “Pastor Protection Act,” which reinforced the First Amendment protections for clergy in their houses of worship.
Our elected leaders would do well to examine these examples of unity exhibited not only by state faith leaders but by business leaders and advocates from every sector of society.
As Deal said: “We don’t have to discriminate against other people in order to (protect fundamental religious beliefs). And that’s the compromise that I’m looking for.”
We can navigate our differences and protect others while respecting religious freedom.
(The Rev. Jennifer Butler is the founding executive director of Faith in Public Life, a Presbyterian minister and former chair of President Obama's White House Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)