The Bible is clear about God’s insistence on compassion and justice, so it makes sense that Bible-believing people of faith would support measures—like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA)—that seek to end injustice in the workplace.
In fact, the Bible has a great deal to say about economic justice and includes almost nothing about sexuality and gender identity.
This morning, ENDA advanced through the Senate HELP Committee with bipartisan support. The bill would make it illegal for most employers to discriminate in employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Unfortunately, many conservative Christian groups are busy opposing the bill and clamoring for the broadest exemptions for religious organizations ever granted under federal laws that bar workplace discrimination.
The fact is that religious groups already have a great deal of authority in employment decisions. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, religious organizations are given the right to make hiring decisions based on religion, so they can hire members of their own faith over others. But this is not a blank check—religious groups cannot discriminate based on race and sex in hiring, except in the case of ministers, where this kind of discrimination remains lamentably legal.
Conservative groups are adamant about safeguarding this right to discriminate and adding to it; the religious exemptions in ENDA would allow them to discriminate against any employee based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This means that when ENDA passes, religious organizations will not have to hire even one person whose sexual orientation and gender identity runs counter to their beliefs.
The bigger problem with Christian opposition to ENDA is that it runs directly counter to the biblical message.
In the book of Isaiah, God criticizes the people for relying on traditional rites of religion while ignoring underlying commandments to be just and compassionate.
In Isaiah 58: 6-10, we read the words of God, spoken by prophet Isaiah, as God questions the piety of the people’s fast days:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of God shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and God will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
This passage asserts that way to be close to God is to pursue the paths of justice and compassion in real and practical ways.
This is not about taking pity on someone or saying nice things—it is about giving them an actual loaf of bread.
This is economics, plain and simple. Nowhere does the prophet say that the best thing to do is to withhold bread from the hungry, blame the homeless for their plight, or any other act of injustice, however warranted a person may believe it to be.
Instead, this passage says that the greatest acts of faithfulness, in God’s eyes, are those that “loose the bonds of injustice” and “satisfy the needs of the afflicted.”
People of faith are called to restore justice here on earth by taking real action to alleviate economic injustice and suffering. One way we can fulfill this biblical call to justice is to end the practice of firing or discriminating against employees because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
When people lose a job in this economy, it puts them and their families at great risk of more than just unemployment.
They may go on to face eviction or foreclosure, homelessness, depression, and a host of other negative impacts. Discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity is not pious—it is cruel and unnecessary, and it leads to the very kind of economic injustice that Isaiah addresses in the passage above.
Jesus takes up this same theme in his preaching and teaching. He says nothing about sexuality or gender; however, when he is asked the big questions—about eternal life, right and wrong, and who is our neighbor—he points his followers to actions of justice and compassion.
In Matthew 25, Jesus concludes his teachings by stating that those who will be blessed by God are those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, provide clothes to those in need, welcome strangers, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned.
Again, discrimination against these groups—no matter how pious or well-intentioned—does not make the list of right actions. For that matter, piety itself isn’t even included. Jesus only names acts of justice and compassion for “the least of these.” For those who follow Jesus, this is essentially like reading the answer key to life’s biggest questions.
As people of faith, we should be focused on caring for the victims of employment discrimination, not demanding the right to add to their ranks.
Every day, in the majority of states in our country, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees have to live in fear of being discriminated against or fired at work. This discrimination is still legal in the United States. It’s time to end that. It’s just plain wrong, and it contributes to precisely the kind of economic injustice that the Bible calls us to rectify.
Religious people have nothing to fear from ENDA and a great deal to gain from its passage. Striving to end economic injustice is part of God’s desire for humanity, and by passing ENDA, and we can contribute to that work.
I was raised in a Christian family, and I deeply value the teachings of Jesus. As a person of faith, supporting ENDA is not optional; it is essential to my striving to live a life of compassion and justice.
Each action we take to end oppression brings us that much closer to the world Isaiah and Jesus call us to build.
Just writing this piece reminds me that I have a responsibility to do more to pass this legislation. Pardon me, but I’m off to call my members of Congress to ask them to support ENDA. I invite you to do the same.
Photo via flickr Ron Zack