As the Faith Organizer for Equality Pennsylvania, I work with about 600 diverse clergy and over 1000 people of faith across the state of Pennsylvania who are working for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.
On May 20, 2014, we celebrated a new reality in Pennsylvania—marriage equality came to our state!
There were jubilant gatherings in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Allentown and Lancaster. In rural towns, churches opened their doors for LGBT people and allies to celebrate.
Marriage equality is important—it grants over 1,000 rights and benefits that protect same-sex couples and their families. But marriage equality is not full equality.
Legal discrimination still exists in Pennsylvania. Except in places with local ordinances, it is still legally permissible for gay and transgender people to be fired, evicted, or turned away from a business just for being who they are.
Since May, Pennsylvania has been joined by many other states that have marriage equality but no legal protections against discrimination for gay and transgender people in the crucial areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations.
A total of 32 states allow legal discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people.
The new reality of marriage equality brought to light many stories of how LGBT people suffer from the effects of discrimination.
It is now legal to get married in Pennsylvania, but you can get fired for going to work with your wedding ring—or evicted from your home if you move in together—or turned away from the store where you want to buy a wedding cake or wedding dress. And there is nothing in our laws to say this is wrong.
I heard from an Episcopal priest in eastern Pennsylvania who opened his church doors to same-sex couples seeking to be married. His joy turned to deep concern when the two men he married last summer announced right before their wedding that nobody should post any photos on social media or tell their friends about the wedding.
By marrying his partner, one of the grooms was at risk of getting fired from his job.
For this Pennsylvania couple, a day of celebration was marred by fear. “It just wasn’t right,” the priest said. Now he volunteers with Equality Pennsylvania as a faith spokesleader, and he works to raise awareness and make change.
I heard from another pastor about a lesbian couple in rural central Pennsylvania who desperately needed access to federal benefits granted to married United States citizens because of a health concern, but the breadwinner for the family was afraid of losing her job because of homophobic remarks made by her supervisor. They decided not to get married, even though it is now legal.
I talked with a young lesbian couple in small town Bloomsburg. When they asked about buying wedding dresses, the bridal shop clerk said: “We don’t do that here. It is against our policy.” In the wake of the marriage equality decision, the Christian shop owners had been advised by their pastors that selling a wedding dress to a lesbian couple was a sin. That one experience of discrimination is causing them to be fearful every time they enter a store.
For the first time, the couple wonders: “Maybe people don’t want us here.”
Our country drew a moral line in our legal system long ago stating that it is unacceptable to turn people away based on who they are. And whom a person marries is part of who they are. It is time to update our non-discrimination laws to also protect people based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.
Discriminating against someone is a form of spiritual violence—it diminishes a person’s sense of worth based on who they are. This is why people of faith are important voices in the struggle for full equality.
In the past year, Pennsylvania clergy and lay faith leaders have held awareness-raising worship services and town hall meetings and prayer breakfasts. They have preached and had Sunday School conversations. They have called and visited their legislators, knowing that the only way to protect their LGBT neighbors from discrimination is to update the law. They have talked to business owners. They have spoken at press conferences and pride marches and town council meetings. They are making their congregations more welcoming of transgender people. They are organizing local interfaith coalitions to make lives better for LGBT people in their own community in practical ways.
Discrimination exists in Pennsylvania and across our nation. But change is happening.
This week, a national campaign—#DiscriminationExists—is launching to raise awareness about the realities of discrimination. Add your name to Believe Out Loud’s campaign to show your support. Together, we can tell the world: “Discrimination Is Not A Christian Value.”
Photo by flickr user Elvert Barnes