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April 8, 2015

Using Religion to Justify Discrimination is Blasphemy

Kate and mom

Above: Kate Kendell and her mother, Afton Kendell, on her grandparents porch, circa 1988.

I came out to my mother at 21, while she was driving us to see my grandparents in Oregon. I was prepared for the worst. Looking back, the idea that I would reveal this information in a fast moving vehicle now seems risky, but I needn’t have worried. Despite my mom’s devotion to her Mormon faith and her love of Jesus Christ, whom she regarded as her Savior, she took my trembling hand and said, “Honey, honey, the only thing that matters to me is that you are happy.”

Over the years as we discussed my life and work, my mom would occasionally lament over how hard it was to be gay in this culture. If she were alive today, she would have so enjoyed seeing the gains we have made. She would have been elated by my marriage to Sandy and cried at our wedding. My mom found a way to reconcile her love for me and her love for her faith. When I asked her how she did this, she would remark, “God gave me you and He gave me my faith. These are great blessings; I love both. He must have a plan.”

Because my Mom did not see a tension between loving me and her faith, it is disquieting to see religion invoked to justify rank bigotry against LGBT people and others. Our opponents aren’t even waiting for the Supreme Court to decide on marriage equality. They are out there now, pressing for bills to deny our full participation in civic life before we have even achieved a clearly established right to it. They mask this denial in an insidious lie: That religion is “under attack.”

Across the country, state legislatures are considering—and in some instances have passed—extreme laws that would permit employers and businesses to violate anti-discrimination laws simply by invoking religious beliefs.

Last month, one of the most draconian of these proposed measures was signed into law by Indiana Governor Mike Pence. The law would have permitted any person or business to refuse to comply with almost any law they feel burdens their religious beliefs. Any law. The breadth of this law was unprecedented and unleashed a firestorm of protest. For good reason. As drafted the Indiana law would have gutted all of the state’s anti-discrimination protections, including laws that protect citizens from unequal treatment based on their race, gender, or religion.

In the wake of massive protests and negative reaction to the law, Indiana lawmakers modified the law. They made clear that religion cannot be invoked to deny services to LGBT people. The law is still far from perfect. There are still NO statewide protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But the most corrosive version of the law was stopped.

In some ways, I am relieved my mom did not live to see this erosion of the faith she embraced and of the deeply humane teachings she lived daily: to love others as you love yourself and to treat everyone with dignity and respect. Using religion to justify discrimination is blasphemy.

In the struggle to win the freedom to marry, nothing about this nation’s deeply embedded protections for religion have changed. The First Amendment is still there, alive and well. What has changed is the place of LGBT people in this culture and society. More and more we feel valued and supported by our friends, our families, our churches and our country. What has changed is that our government is no longer a source of oppression and shameful laws. What has changed is that we no longer tolerate discrimination and exclusion. If you are a person of faith whose faith tells you that LGBT people are sinful and wrong, your right to those beliefs will always be sacrosanct. But if you choose to do business in the public square you cannot use your faith to plunge the LGBT community back 20 years.

By June, we may win the freedom to marry nationwide, but as with the past landmark moments in other civil rights movements, we will not be done. The struggle against prejudice and bigotry will continue, and opponents of justice and full equality will never cease their attacks. But, if we contine to be vigilant, their voices will diminish and their power will ebb.

My mom taught me the power of love and acceptance as the sure path to vanquish fear and intolerance. I know how this ends and so does she. 

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