Pulpit Bullies: Separation of Church and State, Constitutional Amendments and Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Civil Rights

by Alasdair Norris (Tenzin)

The ideals of a democratic government predicated on the separation of church and state clash with religious beliefs that GLBT people are inherently sinful and unworthy of the same rights and protections as other Americans.  Although many major world religions condemn homosexuality and transsexuality, Christianity is central to the discussion of the influence of religion on public policy in America.  Christian political groups not only dictate the tone and content of the debate around GLBT civil rights, but also fund the majority of anti-GLBT ballot measures.  GLBT activists question the constitutionality of mixing religion with public policy.  Should the federal government allow religious groups to generate ballot measures and change laws to deprive gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens of civil liberties?

The fear and animosity directed toward GLBT people by religious groups has profound political and pragmatic consequences.  Many states lack protection against employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and the controversial policy “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” has resulted in the expulsion of almost 13,000 qualified military personnel. AIDS victims were vilified and ignored by the Reagan administration until the infected reached epidemic proportions.  GLBT people don’t have the right to legally marry, adopt or foster children in many states and suffer elevated rates of adolescent homelessness, harassment, hate crimes, depression, murder and suicide.

Rectifying inequities is challenging due to the Christian rights’ perception that GLBT advancement constitutes an assault on traditional values.  Over the past several decades, Christian groups launched highly successful campaigns against every public policy issue affecting GLBT people and blocked laws extending rights and protections.  Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign mobilized Florida voters to repeal a Miami law protecting homosexuals from housing and employment discrimination by a 2 to 1 margin in 1977.  Bryant’s crusade catalyzed anti-GLBT sentiments across the nation resulting in the revocation of anti-discrimination laws in Wichita, Kansas; Eugene, Oregon; and St. Paul, Minnesota and served as the prototype for national political movements such as Jerry Fallwell’s Moral Majority.  Mormons, Catholics and evangelical Christians initiated recent campaigns banning same-sex marriage across the nation.  Proponents of California’s Proposition 8 spent $38,766,260, with the Mormon church contributing around 40% and the Christian Focus on the Family contributing $727,250 .  While conservatives viewed Proposition 8’s passage as a democratic expression of the will of the people, others were frustrated by what was perceived as the imposition of religious beliefs on the political process.  This debate questions whether majority rule can fairly meet the needs of an unpopular minority in a democracy.

The increased visibility of GLBT people has alarmed conservative Christians and created a political backlash.  Anti-GLBT political agendas have been more effective in mobilizing and unifying the Christian right than more traditional concerns such as charity towards the poor.  This tendency is explained by Eric Hoffer’s thesis that fear and hatred provide the most potent cohesion in mass movements.  This fear and revulsion is palpable in the rhetoric of anti-GLBT Christians who describe “the gay agenda” as an ominous conspiracy to convert their children through rape or indoctrination in the school system, destroy traditional marriage and precipitate societal collapse.  Educational videos produced by Christian groups conflate homosexuality with pedophilia and bestiality and show violent gay pornography and images of the extreme fringes of GLBT culture (the equivalent of making a heterosexual documentary showing only wife-beaters and child molesters).  Even legislation including GLBT people in hate crime laws is vehemently protested as the bestowal of “special rights.”  Anti-GLBT Christians claim that hate crime laws will render preaching Levitical proscriptions against homosexuality illegal.  Any effort to further GLBT civil rights is viewed as an attempt to impose an immoral lifestyle on society.

The rhetorical strategies employed in the debate reflect the uncomfortable juxtaposition of religious beliefs, science and politics.  Disparate etiological theories of homosexuality and transsexuality and Constitutional semantics are the most salient factors in the determination of whether GLBT people are considered deserving of the same rights as others.  The central issues are whether sexual orientation and gender identity represent lifestyle choices or innate, immutable characteristics and whether equal treatment and protection of GLBT people under the law constitutes basic civil liberties or “special rights.” Anti-GLBT Christian groups argue that homosexuality and transsexuality represent unnatural lifestyle choices, while mainstream medical thought posits that sexual orientation and gender identity are innate qualities.  Christian groups assert that sinful GLBT people can change through prayer and “reparative” therapy , but the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and The American Psychiatric Association denounce “reparative” therapy as ineffective and potentially harmful.  Scientific studies of homosexual behavior in animals, human twin and sibling studies, genetic analysis and morphological variations in brain structure lend credence to genetic and/or biological explanations of homosexuality and transsexuality, although scientists acknowledge that no single etiological factor explains all variance in sexual orientation and gender identity.  Anti-GLBT religious groups reject mainstream scientific explanations and base their beliefs and political actions on Biblical proscriptions against homosexuality and cross-dressing.

This debate should be unnecessary since depriving GLBT people of civil liberties clearly violates the separation of church and state and the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Bill of Rights.  Thomas Jefferson recognized the dangers of religious tyranny and vehemently advocated a “wall of separation” between church and state.   The First Amendment guarantees the right of every American to practice (or not practice) the religion of his or her choosing without interference from the federal government.  This protection should also prevent the imposition of religious precepts on GLBT citizens through ballot measures and constitutional amendments generated by religious groups for religious motivations.  Christians have the right to practice their faith, but they don’t have the right to generate ballot measures and pass laws forcing others to adhere to Judeo-Christian ethical precepts because America is not a theocracy.  Changing the Constitution to conform to religious mores to deprive people of freedom and equality is regressive.  The Constitution and Bill of Rights should be living, evolving creatures and any changes should be progressive such as past recognitions that slavery, segregation, laws prohibiting interracial marriage, withholding the vote from women and racial minorities dishonors the spirit of the Constitution and are incongruent with the egalitarianism and justice championed (but not always practiced) by our American forefathers.  Conservative Christians argue that allowing GLBT people equal participation in American society constitutes special rights.  This is empty rhetoric to cloak the fact that GLBT people are suffering from their lack of freedom.  We as a nation need to extricate the notion of civil rights from religious doctrine once and for all.  As Jefferson said, “our civil rights have no dependence upon our religious opinions.”

GLBT people endure prolonged deprivation of their rights due to their minority status and consequent political disenfranchisement.  Those in power are often reluctant to champion GLBT rights due to their unpopularity (since advocating gay rights is often tantamount to political suicide), so it is unsurprising that constitutionality of withholding rights from GLBT people on religious grounds has yet to be unequivocally determined by the federal government.  The pervasive anti-GLBT sentiments expressed even by politicians make it unlikely comprehensive GLBT civil rights legislation will enacted by the federal government any time soon.  The Federal Defense of Marriage act should be repealed and the Supreme Court should strike down all anti-GLBT legislation and specific laws banning same-sex marriage as unconstitutional as it did for laws banning interracial marriage in 1967.

The central question in this debate is:   Should the rights of a minority be removed by a popular vote in a democracy?  If so, this sets a dangerous precedent for others who believe in the inferiority of other groups.  If Christians who hate GLBT people are allowed to dictate public policy, racists and misogynists could use the ballot box to rescind laws protecting women, and racial or religious minorities.  Tocqueville cautioned vigilance against the “tyranny of the majority.” History shows that common sense, compassion and civil rights and protections are necessary to prevent a disenfranchised, abhorred minority from oppression at the hands of the majority.  Injustice of any kind is dishonors the spirit in which America was founded; the decision to withhold civil rights from unpopular minorities should not be up for a popular vote.


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