This is the fourth in a series of posts about the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s conference on “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage.” Read the first post here, second post here, and third post here.
NASHVILLE, TN — Conservatives’ argument that LGBT equality poses a threat to “religious liberty” is compelling at least one constituency: evangelical religious leaders. Attendees at last week’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) — mostly Southern Baptist pastors themselves — expressed to ThinkProgress their genuine concern that the government could soon infringe upon their right to preach the Gospel according to their faith. The ERLC featured a number of speakers that reinforced this very myth.
Erik Stanley was one of two lawyers from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) who spoke during the conference. He has been lead counsel representing the five Houston pastors who were subpoenaed for their role in challenging the city’s LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance. After suggesting that Matthew Shepard’s murder was “debunked as a homosexual hate crime,” Stanley proceeded to use the Idaho wedding chapel controversy to claim that its owners were “threatened with arrest, with fines, and with criminal penalties if they do not officiate a same-sex wedding — not just allow their facility to be used, but if they don’t officiate a same-sex wedding.”
ADF attorney Kristen Waggoner, who represents Washington florist Barronelle Stutzman, then told the audience that the government is forcing Christians to “choose between their livelihoods — their professions, their businesses — and their religious convictions, their right to live out their faith freely.” She highlighted a number of other familiar cases before introducing a video specifically about Stutzman’s story refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex couple’s wedding, before welcoming Stutzman herself to the stage. She received a long standing ovation before telling the crowd, “It’s me today, but it’ll be you tomorrow. You cannot sit this one out. They can destroy me, but they cannot destroy God and his word.”
Many of the attendees were wrestling with this conflict between one’s personal belief about marriage and a gradually improving tone when it comes to ministering to LGBT people. Some related to ThinkProgress their understanding that same-sex couples do experience harm when refused service, but still felt that their beliefs needed to come first. Others conceded that they thought it was a compelling argument that maybe for-profit businesses (like the Idaho chapel and other vendors) should be required to serve all customers under the law. They didn’t know of a solution for vendors like Stutzman though, and didn’t feel that she or others should have to sacrifice their trade to maintain their beliefs. All of the pastors who talked to ThinkProgress related that they feared that they might be next, exactly as ADF’s campaigns have been projecting.
Another speaker, Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation, suggested that “there are some activists who are working to pass laws that would allow the government to coerce individuals to violate their beliefs about marriage.” These “coercive” laws are LGBT nondiscrimination protections that operate exactly the same as laws that already protect people on the basis of sex, race, and religion, but Anderson framed them instead as threats to religious organizations. For example, he suggested that Catholic Charities was “forced out of the adoption space” because they wouldn’t serve same-sex couples. In reality, the state organizations voluntarily shut themselves down because they wanted to discriminate while continuing to receive state subsidies. They could have either continued to function without state funding or served same-sex couples, but they elected to give up entirely.
Anderson drove home a distinction that attendees told ThinkProgress was particularly meaningful to them. These Christian businesses “have no problem serving gays and lesbians,” he explained, but “the objection was to the same-sex wedding.” Conservatives have actually used this talking point to suggest that asserting one’s own belief about marriage — i.e., refusing to sell a wedding service to a same-sex couple that is otherwise sold to different-sex couples — does not even count as discrimination. Participants in the ERLC conference believe this distinction matters because of the importance of their faith, even those who could admit it was a harmful experience to the LGBT community.
This justification for discrimination did not jibe with the other messages of the conference that demonstrated an improving — albeit still problematic — tone on homosexuality. ERLC President Russell Moore didn’t flinch when he told the press that parents should not be kicking their kids out of the house for having a same-sex orientation, but at the same time, he was he was defending vendors for kicking same-sex couples out of their stores. As previously noted, he even told the conference that they shouldn’t attend a same-sex couple’s wedding ceremony, because witnesses to a wedding are committing to supporting that marriage.
During a press breakfast, Moore was asked specifically about religious liberty in regards to the “I Stand Sunday” event, a rally in Houston organized by anti-LGBT groups. Moore distanced ERLC from the event, saying simply, “Religious liberty is for everybody, not just a special pleading for people who happen to have the most votes.” Still, he warned, “If the government can pave over religious consciences — the deepest part of what motivates people — then the government can do anything.” Incidentally, one of the featured speakers at the rally turned out to be Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd.
But Moore has spoken more brazenly on questions of religious liberty in the past, including in Rick Santorum’s new religious liberty “docudrama,” One Generation Away. In a clip that was actually played at the “I Stand Sunday” event,” Moore could be seen objecting to the idea that discriminating businesses could be rehabilitated to serve all customers. “The language of rehabilitation,” he explained, “is terrifying, almost Orwellian-like language. If I did not hear it from the authorities themselves, I would assume that it was the product of some conspiracy theorist, imputing evil motives to the state.”
Anderson concluded his remarks by saying that he believes that all organizations should be able “to speak and to act in the public square in accordance with their belief,” promising that “those religious liberty rights will be protected in law and in culture if it’s clear that we’re coming at this from a perspective of love.” Given that the conference included no context about what it’s like for same-sex couples to experience discrimination on the other side of that “love,” it’s perhaps unsurprising that attendees could largely ignore the inherent conflict.