Julie Rodgers is a writer, speaker and advocate for LGBTQ people in faith communities.
When Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a religious- liberty task force at a summit this week, I braced myself for another flare-up in the battle between the two communities I call my own: Christians and queer people. It’s no secret that at this moment in our nation’s public conversation, “religious liberty” is understood almost exclusively to be code for protection for conservative Christians, particularly those opposed to LGBTQ communities.
The summit was backed by the Alliance Defending Freedom, the right-wing group that represented the baker in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case at the Supreme Court. On a panel at the summit, an executive from the Heritage Foundation hinted at the need for adoption agencies to be allowed to refuse LGBTQ couples who hope to adopt.
I’m engaged to be married next month, and it’s devastating to imagine being denied the opportunity to adopt children in need of a loving home. Even more heartbreaking is knowing that vulnerable LGBTQ people all over the country live in communities where they can be fired because of their orientation or denied housing because of their gender identity.
Surely there’s a way to bridge this divide. As a lesbian with a deep Christian faith, I would like to cast a vision for how we can resolve this conflict in a way that affirms the value and dignity of everyone involved.
First, we need to define our ideal outcome. In private conversations with conservative Christians and with LGBTQ people, people from both groups usually say they would like to live in a country where all citizens are free to worship according to their conscience and where all citizens are protected from discrimination. If we want to live in a society that offers maximum freedom to as many people as possible, each side will have to give a little.
Both conservative Christians and LGBTQ people balk at the idea of a compromise, with good reason: They don’t trust each other. To move toward the vision most of us want for this country, one side needs to take the initiative in expressing sincere goodwill toward the other so we can begin to build trust that people on both sides won’t abuse the protections extended to them.
Practically, this means photographers, bakers and tailors would agree to offer services to LGBTQ people, knowing their churches are still free to enforce policies that align with their convictions. It also means LGBTQ people wouldn’t go after the tax-exempt status of Christian institutions that hire according to their beliefs, even when they have policies that insist community members hold theologically traditional views of marriage. And when possible, LGBTQ people would try to respect conservative business owners by seeking out vendors who fully support them. We can coexist in ways that honor and respect those who are different from us, but we can’t do it if we always look for opportunities to provoke and offend.
If we’re going to build enough trust to resolve our current conflict, one side will have to take the first step. I nominate Christians. Why? Just consider the historical dynamics of the conflict.
During the AIDS crisis, leaders of the religious right said the disease was God’s judgment on gay people. Pastors have encouraged parents to send their kids to conversion therapy. Religious leaders have told queer people they were going to hell, that they were an abomination, that they were an embarrassment to their families and that they were not wanted among the community of Christians.
It’s not hard to understand why LGBTQ people don’t trust conservative Christians enough to work toward a compromise. The burden is on Christians to show they truly desire to live in a country where everyone is treated with dignity and respect.
And this they can do. At the heart of our faith is Jesus’ call to love our neighbors more than we love ourselves, and that includes people we don’t agree with, people we don’t like and people who make us uncomfortable. The most conservative Christians can joyfully provide services to people they think are sinful without violating the spirit of Scripture.
There is no resolution to the conflict between religious liberty and LGBTQ rights that will make everyone happy. In fact, I personally don’t like some of the concessions that would need to be made. But a compromise is worthwhile if it means living in a society that protects people from discrimination and honors the freedom of all people to live according to their conscience.
We will move closer to that vision if we humble ourselves and seek the good of the people on the opposing side, even as we fight for those in our own communities. Let’s hope the people on the religious-liberty task force also share this vision.