The coercive program of homosexual liberation, cloaked as always in the language of love and justice, and backed ultimately by court edicts and intense political and social pressure, is now working its way into the American heartland, just as it is working its way into the church in this and other Western countries. Last year IRD reported on controversy in Springfield, in southwestern Missouri, where a proposed ordinance for homosexual rights prompted a dispute between local clergy over the meaning of the gospel as it pertains to homosexuality, and an eloquent defense of Biblical morality by Dr. George O. Wood, General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God, which has its headquarters in Springfield. Local controversy over the ordinance led the city council to table the issue in the past.
Today, the efforts to LGBT rights activists in Missouri are close to a significant victory. Next week, on October 13th, the Springfield City Council will vote on a proposal to criminalize discrimination based on “sexual orientation and gender identity”.
While stymied thus far in efforts to impose, state-wide, a redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples, the diligent six person staff of PROMO (“Missouri’s statewide organization advocating for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality”) have taken an incremental approach in enacting so-called non-discrimination ordinances. Starting with a relatively secular and liberal city, Columbia, they attempted to enact this “model” legislation in other municipalities. One might call this the “domino theory” of gay rights – one city falls at a time and momentum builds. PROMO displays their victories in a time-lapse montage on their website.
Notably absent is any success in enacting the “Columbia model” in the southern third of the state. The Missouri Ozarks is renowned for its deep religiosity, so enacting such an ordinance there would be a major, perhaps decisive, step in enacting such legislation state wide. After all, if this model can pass in the “Queen City” of the Ozarks, why should the Missouri General Assembly have concerns about passing it state wide?
Dr. Wood of the Assemblies of God continues to provide a consistent, thoughtful and credible voice in opposing the imposition of the Columbia model on Springfield, as can be seen in his most recent statement on the issue. Last week, he was joined in his efforts by the local Catholic Bishop, James V. Johnston, who released a statement on September 30. While local media have covered opposition to the ordinance, they seem to be unabashed supporters of same-sex demands, most crucially treating them as simply adding a new antidiscrimination category, along with race, sex, national origin, etc., and highlighting the conservative and religious nature of the opposition. Yet the controversy’s crucial issue is that the proposed ordinance requires not only nondiscrimination with respect to homosexuals as persons, but nondiscrimination with respect to homosexual behavior.
In opposing the ordinance, Bishop Johnston points out the existence of criminal penalties – up to six months in jail – that can be imposed and the lack of any religious exemption whatsoever for individuals and business owners. Thus, religious business owners would not only be required to serve homosexual customers (which probably none object to serving anyway), but to providing goods and services that contribute to homosexual behavior, in scenarios now being played out nationally with bakers and photographers in connection with the wedding industry.
But most shockingly, there is no exemption for religious institutions when engaged in any kind of commerce, such as renting a hall or advertising in a church publication. Under the proposed ordinance, freedom to live one’s faith, religious freedom, is reduced to freedom of worship – the citizenship of churches as full and equal members of the community is revoked unless they leave their faith inside the sanctuary.
In his statement, Bishop Johnston expressed grave concern: “Do the people of Springfield really want to make criminals out of persons who are merely trying to live their faith? Does the government have a compelling interest in forcing every member of our society to participate in the celebration of same-sex relationships?” He urged the Springfield City Council to find a way to respect the conscience rights, association rights, free speech rights and civil rights of all citizens and explained that, under the proposed ordinance, a publication issued by a church can reject advertising for alcohol, abortion or anything else that violates that church’s teachings, but it becomes a crime for the church to reject an ad promoting a same-sex wedding. Is this “equal” treatment, or privileging one group to impose its speech on others?
As noted, the proposed ordinance does not respect religious liberty. It includes a narrow exemption which is inadequate in at least three areas, specifically it:
1) Only applies to employment, not advertising in church publications, not the rental or sale of church property, halls, rooms or worship spaces.
2) Only exempts some religious organizations, those whose primary purpose is “religious ritual or worship or the teaching or spreading of religious doctrine or belief.” All Christian organizations exist primarily as a service to God, but if a Christian organization is focused primarily on what is ordinarily considered a secular function, such as education, say a Christian high school, or charity, serving the poor, such as a soup kitchen, food pantry or another charity, all its employees are not exempt. Only employees whose primary duties are deemed religious in nature are exempt.
3) Does not respect the character of religious service organizations. A gym teacher at a Christian grade school can be required by the school to live a Christian life, to abstain from tobacco and alcohol or be faithful in a church recognized marriage, but if the school fires this employee for having a same-sex affair, that would violate the proposed ordinance. School officials could be subject to fines and up to 6 months in jail.
A common response to lists such as the above is to characterize them (especially before they are enacted) as a “parade of horribles,” a hysterical reaction to something historically forbidden now being protected in law. But traditional Christians do not act from malice (despite the impassioned accusations of homosexual liberation), nor from personal unease about homosexual practice, but from conscience. As IRD noted when conscience protections were defeated in Arizona in March of this year, that to contribute to sin is itself sin, as declared by Jesus Himself, and as recognized by such ecclesiastical guides as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, statement 1868 (on contributing to sin), and the Westminster Larger Catechism, question 99 (on the strict avoidance of sin, including contributing to sin).
And of course, once enacted, such laws do have grave consequences for those who cannot in good conscience contribute to homosexual behavior. Nationally publicized cases involve that of a florist, a photographer, an innkeeper, a baker, and a church camp, but there are numerous others. Claims to First Amendment religious freedom, free speech, or liberty of conscience have generally failed against antidiscrimination laws; the ideological commitment to antidiscrimination doctrine prevails over the constitutional principle, which until this generation would have been thought to protect religious believers. But this is wrong. However much prevailing opinion changes, real moral considerations do not ever change. Christopher Tollefsen of the Witherspoon Institute has provided an excellent defense of liberty of conscience, arguing that it is always wrong to require persons to act against their conscience — although it may, in some circumstances, be possible to forbid actions an individual considers obligatory. Tollefsen notes that it matters not whether a person is correct in his or her belief that a legally required action is wrong, it is still wrong to require that person act against his or her moral judgment.
What does all this mean for where America is headed as a society? IRD pondered the question last fall, when the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled against Elaine Huguenin, a photographer fined for refusing to photograph a lesbian ceremony. In particular, we noted the common threat to the religious conscience in the public square, with merchants in many different occupations affected, and the concurrence in this denial of religious liberty by a New Mexico Supreme Court justice, who declared that taking what traditional Christians believe to be sinful action is “the price of citizenship.” Francis Cardinal George of Chicago expanded on the topic of the loss of liberty due to the state taking the role of a “fake church” in attempting to establish norms for its citizenry based on the sensibilities of the elite who decisively influence the state.
Those who have lived where religious liberty is denied understand what its loss means. The pastor of the largest Slavic immigrant church in the Springfield area made an eloquent plea for religious liberty at a Springfield City Council meeting last month. Noting that the ordinance would subject his church members to fines and jail time, he stated “I came here to America for religious freedom, and now America is becoming more like the Soviet Union … This ordinance would make it illegal for my church members to follow their religious beliefs. We would be subject to fines and could be put out of business. We aren’t trying to force our beliefs on anybody. We want to live at peace with everyone. Please don’t force your values on us. This is an issue of religious liberty.” The Slavic pastor, Mykola Illyuk’s 3-minute speech to the City Council is available in a Youtube video clip.
If we don’t want to see America become “more like the Soviet Union,” we must take what action we can to make our convictions heard. Those in the Springfield area may want to call or write the members of the Springfield City Council individually and ask them why they want to fine and even jail pastors, church officials and business owners for merely living their faith, and to urge them to reject the proposed ordinance, or amend it to protect religious institutions and business owners from providing goods and services that contribute to homosexual behavior.