Evangelical Equality
By: Christina Updegraff
Student Writer for The Journal of Gender, Race & Justice, Volume 18

Cross and Rainbow Flag
Even though religion and sexual orientation are identified as protected classes in many antidiscrimination laws and policies, their association is rarely complementary in other respects. The First Amendment’s right to freedom of religion, for example, protects people from discrimination based on their beliefs. However, when a homosexual person voices their religious beliefs, they tend to be less protected by the First Amendment than their heterosexual counterparts. This is the product of courts traditionally deferring to church doctrine in most discrimination cases between a religious affiliation and homosexuality—also known as “the church autonomy doctrine.”

In Bryce v. Episcopal Church, for example, Bryce was a youth minister at Saint Aiden’s Episcopal Church, whom entered into a commitment ceremony with her partner, an ordained minister from a different organization that was not affiliated with Saint Aiden’s. Episcopal doctrine, which is renewed every ten years at the Lambeth Resolution Conference in England, “cannot advise the legitimizing or blessing of same-sex unions, nor the ordination of those involved in such unions.” Therefore, the church administration discharged Bryce, and she and her partner brought a sexual discrimination suit against the church. The district court dismissed Bryce’s action based on the church autonomy doctrine, holding that: “the courts have ‘essentially no role in determining ecclesiastical questions, or religious doctrine and practice’;” the United States Court of Appeals for the tenth circuit affirmed.

Calling it a First Amendment “protection,” Courts refuse to delve into church matters of “discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law.” Furthermore, this discriminatory practice is also codified into state laws. Iowa’s antidiscrimination statute, for example, does not apply to: “Any bona fide religious institution with respect to any qualifications the institution may impose based on religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity when such qualifications are related to a bona fide religious purpose.” In essence, the First Amendment grants conditional freedom of religion—not even equal protection of the law can provide a solution.

However, a recent article in Time Magazine provides insight into the reconfiguration of church doctrine (Jan. 26, 2015 issue). Over the past six months, Eastlake Community Church in Seattle modernized their traditional oppositional attitude towards homosexuality, and is now one of the first “LGBT-affirming evangelical churches” in the United States. Although the National Association of Evangelicals—as well as the Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, and LDS churches—do not support same-sex marriage, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the United Church of Christ do. And the trend is increasingly LGBT-friendly: The Public Religion Research Institute reports support for same-sex marriage has grown among even the oldest traditional evangelicals from one in twenty in 2003, to one in five in 2014.

Eastlake Community Church must be commended for their reformation as an LGBT-affirming congregation. Pastor Ryan Meeks, who leads each service with the line, “Gay or straight here, there’s no hate here,” believes the message of Christ is best served through community and inclusivity. The movement has cost them 22% of their income and approximately eight-hundred attendees over the past eighteen months, which Meeks expects to climb, but refuses to put a price on the integrity of his church and Christian beliefs.

There is a growing acceptance of same-sex marriage, and homosexuality in general, across the entire United States, as seen in numerous recent court decisions. Eliminating discrimination by the state is perhaps a much easier task than doing the same for private interests, and much easier still than combating constitutionally-protected discrimination conducted as part of the free exercise of religion. There are some, however, such as Pastor Ryan Meeks, who are working to increase religious acceptance of homosexuality, and he and those like him are deserving of our praise.