Balancing LGBT, religious rights is our next challenge

We firmly believe that compromise and accommodation are possible among men and women of goodwill in Michigan, as a state as religiously conservative as Utah has done.

The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled yet on the question of same-sex marriage. Neither the Michigan Legislature nor the city of Holland have included LGBT protections in the non-discrimination laws.

Yet the battle for gay rights has such momentum behind it that it almost seems as if it’s over already, with the inevitability of an approaching tsunami bound to overwhelm and erase the old barriers of discrimination. Even if the Supreme Court were to rule that states like Michigan have the right to prohibit same-sex marriage, it would only be a matter of time before the people of Michigan voted to allow it. Support for same-sex marriage and other rights for gay people continues to rise, with overwhelming majorities among young people who see equal protection for gays as the most natural extension of the American principles of equality for all. It is only inevitable, it seems, that measures of equality that don’t apply to the LGBT population today are just a few years away.

Ironically, it’s at this time of progress for LGBT rights that the thorniest dilemmas are being raised. They deal with the potential conflict between LGBT rights and a deep-seated tradition against forcing Americans to act in violation of their religious principles. In other words, must those Americans who sincerely believe because of their religion that homosexual activity is sinful be forced to “support” activities such as same-sex marriage or other activities involving gay, lesbian and transgender individuals?

It’s a question that raises conflicting emotions. For instance, the Michigan House voted last week, over charges of discrimination from gay-rights advocates, to allow faith-based adoption agencies to deny services to certain prospective parents based on their religious beliefs, which seems like a reasonable measure to us. At the same time, many states are considering “conscience” laws that would allow individual contractors such as bakers, florists and wedding photographers to refuse to serve same-sex couples getting married, a move that seems similar to turning away African-Americans from the lunch counter. Is a fundamentalist Christian landlord’s refusal to rent to a gay couple any different than refusals to rent to a Muslim? Are such opinions inconsistent? Probably, but they illustrate the difficulty of balancing the rights of different groups.

Working out these tough questions will require compromise, respect and perhaps some narrow legal distinctions. A baker or florist, for instance, provides a product, and that’s far different than being “involved” in a same-sex marriage as a clergyman would.

One thing we should never hear from any gay-rights supporters is that opponents are “haters” or “bigots.” Christians who support gay rights may believe that the Old Testament’s condemnations against homosexuality were valid only in the particular context of ancient Israel or that they are overwhelmed by Jesus’ message of unconditional love, but they exist in the Bible and are accepted as divine instruction by many who take a more literal view of Scripture. Their position was, of course, the orthodox position of Christianity (and, for that matter, Judaism and Islam) for centuries. No one should question the sincerity of convictions of such believers. They are not the equivalent of those Southern pastors who made flimsy arguments with no real theological basis in favor of segregation.

We firmly believe that compromise and accommodation are possible among men and women of goodwill, as a state as religiously conservative as Utah has done. Last week, the governor of Utah signed into law a bill supported by both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mormon Church that protects LGBT individuals from discrimination in employment and housing while protecting religious speech and providing exemptions for clergy and religious institutions. Still in question is the broader question of religious exemptions, but with the same spirit of cooperation and respect we imagine those issues can be resolved as well.

If Utah can reach such an agreement, so can Michigan. Progress takes a mutual recognition that no rights are absolute and that both sides have a legitimate right to legal protection. Even before more basic elements of LGBT rights are in place, we should start considering such accommodations.
— HOLLAND SENTINEL