This spring, the President announced he would issue an executive order regarding LGBT employment in organizations contracting with the federal government. A number of religious organizations quickly expressed concern. The policy would pose a problem for groups whose conduct standards reflect biblical teaching that reserves sexual relations for the marital union of a man and a woman. As it turns out, even raising a voice to defend religious liberty in the policy discussion would be portrayed as a problem by some.
More than 160 Christian and Jewish leaders, organized by the Institutional Religious Freedom Association (IRFA), signed a June 25 letter to President Obama calling attention to problems with the proposed executive order. They wrote:
It would be counterproductive to bar [religious organizations] from offering their services to the federal government simply because of their legally protected religious convictions; it would be wrong to require them to violate those legally protected convictions in order to be eligible to receive federal contracts. Their exclusion from federal contracting would be diametrically opposed to the Administration’s commitment to having “all hands on deck” in the fight against poverty and other dire social problems.
Michael Wear, a former Obama White House and campaign staffer, helped to produce another letter to the President signed by 14 Christian leaders, including Rick Warren of Saddleback Church and Andy Crouch of Christianity Today. “Religious organizations, because of their religious faith, have served their nation well for centuries, as you have acknowledged and supported time and time again,” they reminded the President in their July 1 letter. “We hope that religious organizations can continue to do so, on equal footing with others, in the future. A religious exemption in your executive order on LGBT employment rights would allow for this.”
The executive order issued Monday by President Obama did not heed these appeals. While it did not go so far as to overturn a prior policy that allows a religious group to continue employment on the basis of its affiliation, “[l]itigation and a chilling of partnerships are predictable,” says Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of IRFA. Religious groups have contracted with the federal government to provide relief and development abroad, to provide services to the Bureau of Prisons, and to engage in research and technical assistance. How the new executive order will affect such working relationships remains to be seen.
It is already clear that one of the signatories has become the target of recriminations simply for speaking on behalf of religious liberty in this policy discussion. Michael Lindsay, president of evangelical Gordon College in Massachusetts, signed the July 1 letter along with Michael Wear and Rick Warren. Since then the New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ higher education commission, through which Gordon is accredited, has announced that it will review the matter at its September meeting. Meanwhile, the town of Salem wound down early its contract with the college (which Gordon was already in the process of ending for unrelated reasons), through which it had managed the Old Town Hall as an event space.
Salem’s mayor told The Christian Post that the school’s policy “is in violation of the LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinance that was unanimously adopted by the Salem City Council earlier this year.” Such policies on sexual orientation and gender identity have appeared in a number of communities.
The backlash against simply participating in civil discourse about an important topic of public concern is alarming—but not a first. In 2012, Angela McCaskill, associate provost for diversity and inclusion at Gallaudet, a federally chartered private university for the deaf in Washington, D.C., was put on administrative leave after it became known that she had signed a petition—along with 200,000 other Maryland residents—to put a referendum on the ballot for citizens to review a same-sex marriage law passed by the state legislature. Mere participation in the political process was enough to warrant such treatment of McCaskill, the first black, deaf woman to earn a PhD from Gallaudet and a 20-year veteran of the staff.
Similarly, the purge of Brendan Eich as Mozilla CEO this past April stemmed from a furor over his donation six years ago to the Proposition 8 campaign to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman in the California state constitution.
Such outrages can prompt despair, cynicism, and withdrawal. But they should not. These episodes should be catalysts to engage more vigorously and with greater perseverance in efforts to persuade through reason.
Speaking Truth, Defending Truth
Christians, whether as individuals or in groups founded on tenets of the faith, should continue to speak and to act consistent with biblical truth about marriage and sexuality. Christians—and all citizens—should also defend the freedom to speak and to act in both private and public life consistent with these truths. It is a matter of stewardship and interest in the common good of all to maintain freedom of conscience and freedom of speech against coercive policies or cultural trends.
This pursuit of civil dialogue includes expecting and calling on interlocutors to use reason—not coercion or intimidation—to make their points as well. Failing to call out uncivil approaches shortchanges the dignity of those directly involved and of the surrounding community.
Media frequently portray these policy disputes as a zero-sum game. They need not be. Christians and other concerned citizens should be a part of seeking out the facts about the available policy and legal accommodations and working through the details in particular contexts to balance competing interests.
Christian ministries and educational institutions by definition seek to integrate faith in every aspect of their work. Hiring and conduct standards are critical aspects of such mission-driven enterprises. One of the most pressing apologetic tasks in the 21st century is to articulate the transformative implications of faith in such communities, both to form members and also to inform the understanding of neighbors.