Liberating Religious Liberty

by Justin Tanis

When I went to work in West Hollywood in the mid-1990s, one of my new co-workers took me on a tour of the neighborhood at lunchtime. A long-time gay activist, he knew the local history well. He pointed out a building down the street and told me about the removal of a sign that read, “Fagots-Stay Out.” In 1970, the newly formed Gay Liberation Front protested Barney’s Beanery until the sign came down.

My co-worker talked about the impact of that sign—the humiliation that it existed and the pride that the community had because they succeeded in getting it removed.

Now it is forty-five years since that sign came down, but instead of being a relic of the past, it is a sentiment that is rising again. Across the country, legislators are proposing, considering, and passing bills like Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act that would allow business owners and employees to deny goods and services to LGBTQ people—“Faggots stay out”—based on their religious beliefs.

In some states, not only would this legalize homophobic and transphobic discrimination, but also race and religion based prejudices, as long as the rationale was couched in religious terms.

The New York Times reported this month the words of Joseph Silk, a state senator from Oklahoma and the author of one of these bills, “They don’t have a right to be served in every single store,” said Mr. Silk, referring to gay people. “People need to have the ability to refuse service if it violates their religious convictions.”

But what, exactly, are these religious convictions?

It is one thing for people to decide not to participate in actions they consider wrong—in this case, engaging in sex with someone of the same gender or changing how you express your gender—and quite another to overtly discriminate against others whose beliefs and lives are different.

It essentially says that contact with some with different moral values conveys a kind of sin by osmosis, which is not a traditional Christian belief.

On the other hand, hospitality is a strong Biblical virtue. Paul lists hospitality repeatedly as one of the characteristics that Bishops and other spiritual leaders should have and uphold.

Jesus frequently chastised his followers for turning people away and regularly challenged the cultural and religious practices that excluded groups of people as “unclean.” 

1 Peter 4:8-10 says:

Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.

My faith is about the transformation of my life and the world I live in—a charge to treat others as I would want to be treated by them. My faith requires me to expand my hospitality, to increase my kindness, to engage justice, and to welcome the stranger. My faith is an inward process of spiritual growth that extends outwards.

These business owners are not compromising their faith because people who believe and live differently walk through their doors. They are compromising their faith when they reject and abuse others—and believe me, being turned away because of who you are is hurtful and wrong.

Faith is not enhanced by refusing to bake a cake or serve a meal or take a picture.

Faith is grown by constant and small acts of being open to grace and to the goodness of others, even those we might not expect.

Those concerned with religious liberty would do well to remember the words of Hebrews 13, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry will host a symposium on April 16-17, 2015, with religious scholars and activists to consider a positive view of religious liberty as one that does not discriminate but empowers us to live in a diverse, twenty-first century world. More information is available at All are welcome.

Photo by Gilbert B. Weingourt, used with permission