Rev. Mark Johnston, Ph.D., Executive Director of GLAD’s Open & Affirming Ministry Program and member of the General Board of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) offers this letter to the friends and members of the GLAD Alliance.
The past couple of weeks have been quite a roller coaster, especially for Disciples and especially for Indiana, the state where our church has maintained our denominational offices since long before we called ourselves a denomination.
Certainly you know the basics of the story. The state legislature passed and on March 26 the governor of Indiana signed into law a so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This act did nothing to restore religious freedoms to individuals, but rather was clearly designed to grant businesses a right to use religious faith as an excuse to discriminate. While LGBT people were not mentioned in the bill, other communication from those involved made it clear that LGBT people were the main target.
Our church joined the chorus of protest against this bill, both while under consideration and after it passed. Quickly, the church leadership convened the General Board of the church in a specially called meeting via conference call on March 31 and responded to this law by voting unanimously to seek a new venue for our 2017 Assembly, scheduled for Indianapolis.
The response to this choice was reported in the national press. Sharon Watkins, our General Minister and President, gave an interview on National Public Radio. The moment was an exciting and inspiring one for LGBT members of the church and our friends and advocates.
It happens by coincidence that I am a member of the General Board. I was and am proud of the action of the board on that phone call. We were informed that breaking contracts might cost well over $300,000, yet we voted unanimously without looking back.
And, as you know, in response to the outrage, corporate boycott threats, and the actions of our denomination, the law in Indiana changed again. There are now amendments to the law to remove the possibility that it could be used to discriminate against LGBT persons in Indiana.
In response to these changes, the General Board, meeting this past weekend in Kansas City, voted to take the Assembly back to Indianapolis.
I am not happy, but perhaps grateful, to report that this second vote was difficult. We discussed this decision at length and the vote to return to Indianapolis was far from unanimous.
I do understand that this choice has disappointed many of the LGBT people in our church and many of our supporters. In the midst of that disappointment, I would like to share a few observations and thoughts.
I have no illusion that the law in Indiana is good enough. More importantly, it is now clear that our church leadership knows that the current state of protections for LGBT persons in Indiana and much of the U.S. is not good enough. I can personally report that Sharon Watkins, Todd Adams, and Glen Miles (our General Minister and President, Associate General Minister and Vice President, and Moderator of the Christian Church) are clearly committed to continued work on this issue.
Sharon Watkins and our church leadership have carefully weighed this decision. They have trusted the analysis of Freedom Indiana that civil rights protections in Indiana are at least as good as they were before these changes in the law. They also understand that this isn’t enough. Whether you agree with this analysis or not, I ask you to notice that our church leadership today is paying careful attention to what LGBT advocates are saying.
Personally, I find it inconceivable that these so called Religious Freedom laws are even under consideration. I find it outrageous that in 2015 LGBT people can be denied housing and employment in many of our states. Also, I struggle continuously to find ways to communicate with those who disagree with me. I do not know if returning our Assembly to Indianapolis was the best message at this moment. I do, however, know that the intended message was this: we are not going away. We will continue to work for the safety and rights of LGBT people and all people until this is a safe place for all.
I don’t ask you to agree with Sharon’s statement that the Hoosier state is a safer place today. Nor do I ask you to agree with Sharon’s and our church leadership’s analysis that returning to Indianapolis is the best strategy for maintaining our credibility.
But I do ask you to notice that the welcome and safety of LGBT members and all persons is today a high priority among our church leadership. Sharon stated in her letter to the church on April 13 that “There is a newly invigorated statewide understanding that Indiana needs improved laws and ordinances protecting all people from discrimination. Disciples will be part of that movement – a clear voice of faith.” [Bold in Sharon’s original letter.]
And I ask you to continue working with me, with the leadership of the GLAD Alliance, and with the leadership of the Christian Church as we work together to build a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) that is a just and inclusive church where all are welcome at the table.
For more information on what you can do to counter so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Acts in your state, contact Mark Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org for information on workshops that your congregation can sponsor.