(RNS) — When Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas directed his state’s Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate medical treatments for transgender adolescents as child abuse last month, the Rev. Daniel Kanter, senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Dallas, called the news a “gut punch.”
The governor’s directive, which came a week before Texas’ March 1 primary election, has convinced hospitals in the state, including the largest pediatric care center in the U.S., to stop administering puberty-suppressing drugs and hormones.
The governor’s letter said teachers, nurses, doctors and other licensed professionals could face criminal penalties for failing to report.
“I’m talking to parents of transgender kids in our church. All of a sudden they are lawyering up, and thinking about moving out of the state,” Kanter told Religion News Service. “They are in part asking the question, what kind of Texas is this, that targets them for trying to help their children be who they are?”
The pastor’s opposition to the governor’s move is also personal: Kanter’s 21-year-old son is transgender.
“My son is one of the most well-adjusted and life-affirming people I know. He has thrived in his life since his transition and has dedicated his life to service in health care and helping people thrive,” wrote Kanter in a letter published Wednesday (March 2) in The Dallas Morning News. “As a person of faith, I know that God’s creation, which includes people of various gender identities, should be treated as sacred and dignified and holy.”
Other clergy are also speaking out against Abbott’s order. The Rev. Lisa Hunt, rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Houston and board president of the church’s school, published her own letter to the editor in the Houston Chronicle objecting to the governor’s dictate. Hunt told RNS: “We are a church-based school, and I was very committed to making sure our families knew there were others standing in solidarity with them.
“The fact that children would be used as a weapon … it’s violent, in a rhetorical way, and in a civil discourse kind of way,” said Hunt. “I don’t think it bodes well for the care of children or for the healing of divisions in Texas.”
Hunt said families with trans children in her community are also considering moving out of Texas due to safety concerns and said others are asking whether its still safe to display LGBTQ-affirming flags.
Leaders at Celebration Church, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation in Cypress, Texas, seek to be hospitable toward LGBTQ individuals through mission partnerships, support groups and by expressly welcoming people of every gender identity and sexual orientation in Sunday liturgy. The Sunday after Abbott issued his directive, the service included a prayer for trans youth, their parents and families and for those who provide gender-affirming care.
“I think we can underestimate the impact of prayer and explicit statements in worship in support of trans youth and trans families and providers who offer gender affirming care,” said Amber Harbolt, ministry coordinator at Celebration Lutheran. “To hear that in a Christian context, particularly in a state like Texas, and in any rather conservative area like Cypress, is itself an act of resistance.”
By and large, Christian leaders only rarely support transgender people’s rights. A July 2021 Pew Research Center survey found that just 12% of Protestants and 19% of Catholics believe greater acceptance of transgender people is very good for society, compared with 39% of unaffiliated people.
A study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior in January found that 81.1% of evangelical Protestants disagreed or strongly disagreed that adolescents should be able to transition with hormones or surgery if they identify with another gender. It also found that nearly half (49.4%) of self-identified mainline Protestants disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, as did 69.1% of Pentecostals, 80.3% of Mormons, 24.4% of liberal Protestants and 39.4% of Catholics.
Abbott’s action has brought more faith groups into the controversy. Last week, students at the University of North Texas, in Denton, turned out to protest a speech by Jeff Younger, a candidate for the Texas House of Representatives who has vocally opposed sex reassignment surgeries.
@rev.marianne If you’re having a hard day at #unt come see us at The Wesley at Maple and Ave B. #unt25 #unt24 #gomeangreen #progressiveclergy ♬ All I Ever Asked – Rachel Chinouriri
Younger was invited to the campus by UNT’s Young Conservatives of Texas branch, but he and one of the event’s organizers, Kelly Neidert, left the venue with a police escort after the speech drew some 60 protesters inside the event with another 500 gathered outside, according to Neidert’s estimate.
Neidert told RNS the event was planned before the governor issued his directive and was intended to be an internal YCT meeting introducing a local candidate. However, in the weeks leading up to the event, a student confronted Neidert as she was printing a flyer that said “criminalize child transitions.” Neidert recorded the interaction in a now-viral video.
“Obviously, we were frustrated that Jeff didn’t get to speak, but I guess everyone being interested in what happened, and everyone seeing how these students and protesters were acting, we take that as a win,” said Neidert. “We’re trying to expose what happened.”
As the protest went on, the Denton Wesley Foundation, an affirming United Methodist campus ministry, opened its campus center as a place for trans students, some of whom were disturbed by the goings-on on campus, to safely gather. First United Methodist Church of Denton also provided food and volunteers to care for the students.
The campus ministry sees supporting trans individuals as a chance to show students the church as a welcoming presence. “We had lots of students that we hadn’t met before that got to have a positive experience of a religious community that some of them have never had in their whole life,” said the Rev. Marianne Brown-Trigg, a campus minister and executive director for the foundation.
“That’s what’s been important for us,” Brown-Trigg added, “is just being a witness that God loves trans kids and God loves trans young adults, and trying to erase the narrative that so many churches have written before us in the lives of these students.”