Can I be honest? I’m getting really sick of having to write these kinds of letters. But I’ll keep doing it until the day when my gay and lesbian friends and relatives feel safe and at home in this country.

(Below is a “Letter to the Editor” sent to the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.)

What is religion for?

The word “religion” comes from the Latin root, ‘religare,’ which means to re-bind. The purpose of any religion, then, should be to strengthen the ties between people and their God and between people and their brothers and sisters. As we strengthen our ties to God, we deepen our faith, find strength and guidance in our living, and experience the deep peace and unconditional love that has traditionally been labelled ‘grace.’ As we strengthen our ties to one another, we practice compassion, kindness, and civility. We learn to love our enemies, embrace those who are different, and forgive those who have sinned against us. In fact, I, like many of the straight allies who advocate for Gay and Lesbian equality, am moved to do so by my faith.

I mention all of this because as an ordained minister, a “Christophile,” and a human being, I am deeply offended by the so-called “Freedom of Religion” act and some of the tactics and terms being used by its defenders. The biblical case against homosexuality is shaky at best, rife with incorrect translations and verses taken out of context. Even if one chooses to believe otherwise, there is simply no way to make the case that the bible teaches discrimination. Nowhere does it say, “Thou shalt not do business with people whose sexuality makes you uncomfortable.”

If people are advocating for the right to discriminate, I suppose they may do so. However, it would be more accurate to call the proposed legislation the “Freedom of Discrimination” act, or perhaps “Freedom to be Uncivil.” What happens between a person and their God is private. What happens in our bedroom is also private. In the public sphere, our national values are clear: all people are created equal, and deserve to be treated with dignity and kindness.

Luker Laws

February 11, 2014

Here is a letter I am sending off to Rep. Lynn Luker, with copies to Rep. Dan Schmidt, Rep. Lucinda Agidius, and Rep. Shirley Ringo.

Dear Representative Luker,

I am adding my voice to the hundreds of people of faith who are requesting…begging, really…that you reconsider your support of HB427. My primary concern is that it will undo the protections recently extended to my gay, lesbian and transgender neighbors by the Moscow city non-discrimination ordinance.

Many scholars believe that there is no biblical basis for homophobia, and that the homophobic lens is one that was superimposed over the text many hundreds of years after it was written. This is true in my tradition, but also in many others. I’ve studied with Catholics, Baptists, Protestants, and even Evangelicals who believe wholeheartedly that gay and lesbian love is as sacred and precious to God as heterosexual love. A closer look at the bible passages that people typically use to make a case for the sinfulness of homosexuality reveals an extremely shaky case.

The first passage is, of course, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The idea that God punished Sodom and Gomorrah for the sin of homosexuality didn’t enter Christian discourse until medieval times. In fact, there are several passages in the bible…one in Ezekiel, one in Jeremiah and one in the gospel of Matthew, that point to pride, excess, lack of care for the poor and needy, and lack of hospitality as the ‘wickedness’ that angered God- not homosexuality. The event described in the text is about as far from a loving, committed same-gender relationship as you can get: basically, we’re talking about gang rape. It’s a huge step to get from “God considers gang-rape a sin” to “God considers same-gender love a sin.”

The other passages that are frequently quoted are in Leviticus- 18:22 and 20:13 to be precise. A close reading of the text makes it clear that they are not referencing loving, committed same-gender relationships but designed to warn Israelites in exile against adopting the Canaanite practice of temple prostitution. Read in context, these two verses are part of a long list of rules that make up the ‘purity code.’ According to the code, adulterers and men who sleep with menstruating women are to be put to death, tattoos and piercings are forbidden, and all people should keep kosher. There are also rules governing the taking and treatment of slaves and concubines, and the passing along of widows to ensure a clear line of succession. To lift up just these two verses and to ignore the rest seems disingenuous, to say the least.

That’s it in the Old Testament. When we turn to the New Testament, we find absolutely NOTHING addressing same-gender love or sex in any of the four gospels. Paul has a few nasty things to say in Romans and First Corinthians, but again, careful reading shows that they seemed aimed at sexual excess and dishonesty (unnatural lusts) rather than committed same-gender relationships.

It begs the question how did people get the idea that the bible is ‘against’ homosexuality?

In the years leading up to the reformation, what is now the Catholic church (but which was then just ‘the church’ was full of corruption and nepotism. The way to get ahead, to get a desirable posting, was to have an affair with somebody above you in the hierarchy. In an act of blatant hypocrisy, the church launched what was basically a propaganda campaign, introducing anti-homosexual interpretations of the texts I just referenced, and imposing celibacy on priests. (Marriage among priests was common and accepted until 1129.)

Should a person disagree with these arguments, instead clinging to a belief that homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of God, it’s still a very big leap to discriminate against gays and lesbians. The teachings of the bible on how we are to treat one another are too numerous to list…think of the golden rule, the great commandment, and “As you do unto the least of these….” Jesus led by example. He broke almost all of the purity rules. He deliberately sat and spoke and ate with prostitutes and lepers and others considered ‘unclean.’

Nowhere in the bible does it say, “Thou shalt deny sinners health care,” “Thou shalt not sell sinners a wedding cake,” or even “Thou shalt not interact with people whose beliefs or sexual practices you find distasteful.” Who wants to open that door? “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Would it be okay if doctors refused to treat addicts or even people who are overweight? After all, they’re guilty of gluttony, and that’s one of the seven deadly sins.

I know that some people are afraid that priests might be forced to perform a wedding, or sued for refusing. To be clear: there is a difference between religious sacraments and business interactions. Different faith communities have always had the ability to choose who can receive sacraments: we get to decide who gets served communion and who can’t. We get to choose when and how to baptize, and who we are willing to marry. I myself have refused to marry people when I felt their relationship wasn’t healthy. I wouldn’t want Native Americans to be sued because they limit participation in one of their rituals to members of the tribe. That would be a violation of the freedom of religion. However there is a huge difference between being allowed to participate in a sacrament or a religious ritual and having access to a basic service like housing or medical care. Everyone has an equal right to buy a cup of coffee, or go see a movie. This is what our ancestors intended when they declared the separation of church and state.

I am not as familiar with your faith as I’d like to be, and I’d be interested to learn why it is that you feel so strongly that businesspeople shouldn’t have to provide services to people whose lifestyle they see as sinful. One can believe that homosexuality is a sin and still learn and grow from the experience of treating someone who is different with kindness and compassion. I have had many former Mormons in my congregation, and I’ve seen the way the teachings on the sinfulness of homosexuality can rip apart families and damage people’s spirits. I confess I have a hard time believing that this kind of pain is part of God’s plan. Everything that I know of God points toward a desire for healing and love rather than discrimination and pain.

The anti-discrimination ordinance was a welcome step forward here in Moscow; I know people who have been denied service at local restaurants, as well as people who have had a harder time finding a place to live because of their sexual orientation. My faith teaches that everyone deserves to be treated with respect for their inherent worth and dignity. HB 427 runs counter to my faith and my conscience.

It hurts my heart to even think about it becoming law, thus rendering our local ordinance unenforceable. I know of a lot of good people…both gay and straight…who are ready to leave the great state of Idaho over this. I am not one of them; I will stay and become more active in the “Add the Words” campaign instead.

I appreciate your willingness to serve, as well as the time you have taken to read this letter. I would welcome a response, and would also be delighted to meet with you in person. I will be holding you and your fellow Idaho legislators in prayer as you consider this issue.

Sincerely,

The Rev. Elizabeth H. Stevens