Controversy abounds regarding the Human Equal Rights Ordinance in Houston, Texas. The mayor, Annise Parker, signed an ordinance that prohibits “discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics.” Mayor Parker is openly gay and the issue of discrimination against homosexuality is clearly a motivating factor, but discrimination against women and minorities are, of course, included.
Several pro bono lawyers have now sent subpoenas to several pastors in the city, asking them to turn over “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (also known as HERO). Their concern is whether certain Christian themed sermons comply with the ordinance.
Ted Cruz has called the subpoenas (and erroneously lays responsibility entirely on the mayor) “shameful.” Before I address that “shame” I believe that the real shame lies in the fact that in the 21st century we need to write ordinances to compel people to behave civilly to one another and to recognize that equality extends to us all. But, given that a large portion of America refuses to recognize such decency toward certain people, behavior ordinances have become part of our legislative directive to be a better society.
That being said, my first reaction to the subpoenas was that they are in violation of the First Amendment. I was pretty certain in my conviction that, within the confines of a church, government must respect the right to share beliefs; no matter how much many of us may disagree with them. It is the underbelly of Religious Freedom when beliefs separate decency from others, or are even hypocritical, but they do fall under the protection of the First Amendment.
I continued my argument (with myself and no one in particular): These churches do not have the right to persecute others within the town square, but like the decree in Skokie years ago that allowed Nazis to march, we cannot legislate thoughts, and ideas, even contemptuous ones.
And then….I considered something.
I considered the fact that I am a heterosexual, white, male in America. I am not gay. I am not a woman. I am not a minority. I have never gone anywhere, been employed anywhere, or joined any organization where I felt that I might be discriminated against, ridiculed, or paid less, or given fewer opportunities because of any of my natural characteristics. And then I considered a different scenario…..
What if…I started a church?
What if it were a fundamentalist Christian church adhering to strict Old Testament doctrine? My parishioners are called “Leviticans” and we Leviticans believe that to truly exemplify Christian values that we must consider women to be the property of men. We believe that “Woman are not entitled to the full privileges of citizenship,” and thereby should not vote and in many public instances are to be segregated from men. They do not belong in the workplace, their ideas are folly, and as “property” can actually be dispensed with if they cause a man displeasure.
Sound ridiculous? It isn’t if you read the Old Testament. But the point here is not to cast any doctrine of Christianity into extreme light, but to illustrate how religious beliefs can persecute.
To bring my hypothetical to its conclusion, let’s say that a woman becomes mayor of a major city where my church has grown, and the “Gospel” of subjugating the rights of women is spreading; businesses and social organizations are limiting opportunities for women (this is also called “reality”). This mayor then issues an ordinance that forbids any civic institution from such discrimination. Where does Ted Cruz fall, along with the others who today are crying, “Where’s our religious freedom?!”?
I don’t need answers, I’ll tell you what they’d be doing. They’d be hollering “Hooray! Women deserve equal rights and it’s going to take aggressive leadership (and ordinances) to bring Kroeger and his Leviticans and their shameful movement to social justice!”
Contemporary Christian values discriminate against gay people in many churches, and that discrimination requires bold initiatives to fight. My argument here (again, with myself) has not been resolved completely, either way. I don’t believe that we can easily dismiss the First Amendment protection of religious freedom in this case, but I also stand by my hypothetical journey.
Harper Lee adapted a Native American proverb in “To Kill a Mockingbird”: “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”