Matt Comer

For marriage victories, we must face and use religion

Filed By Matt Comer | November 12, 2009 7:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: marriage equality, religion-based bigotry, religious freedom, religious imagery, Washington D.C.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., is saying it might not be able to continue its social services programs if a marriage equality bill is passed by the D.C. Council.

The Washington Post reports that Archdiocese officials say the proposed marriage bill might threaten their religious freedoms. They say that without a religious exclusion, the bill could force them and other religious groups receiving money from the city to "give same-sex couples medical benefits, open adoptions to same-sex couples and rent a church hall to a support group for lesbian couples."

Also at issue are individual religious freedoms:

The archdiocese's statement follows a vote Tuesday by the council's Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary to reject an amendment that would have allowed individuals, based on their religious beliefs, to decline to provide services for same-sex weddings.

"Lets say an individual caterer is a staunch Christian and someone wants him to do a cake with two grooms on top," said council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 6), the sponsor of the amendment. "Why can't they say, based on their religious beliefs, 'I can't do something like that'?"

After the vote, the archdiocese sent out a statement accusing the council of ignoring the right of religious freedom.

So, there we have it. The debate is now firmly set. This isn't going to be a fight over LGBT equality proponents vs. those who don't think LGBT people should be equal. It will be a fight against equality proponents vs. those who feel as though their personal, religious freedoms are under threat. If I had to choose which kind of fight to engage in, I'd certainly never choose the latter.

I think we can have great, academic conversations and debates about the separation of church and state, religious freedom and why government can't and shouldn't allow religious groups to discriminate on the government's dime. I think a lot of people would understand it, but given the amount of emotion invested in these issues would most people get it?

If there is one thing we've learned after seeing a majority of our states fall like dominoes to this anti-LGBT, anti-family marriage agenda, it's that this marriage issue plays with people's emotions in mightily strong and effective ways. Proponents of government-sanctioned discrimination have been able to pull at otherwise understanding and accepting folks' heartstrings while playing up some false commitment to "morality." It's why you see friends and family members voting to ban your civil marriage recognition, while they say (and wholeheartedly mean) they love you and treat you and your family no differently than your brother or sister and their spouse.

I'm not the first person to say this, by any means, but it deserves repeating: We can't ignore the religious/moral/spiritual issue anymore.

Folks and groups like Mitchell Gold and Faith in America, and Mel White and Soulforce, have done a tremendous amount of work exposing the religion-based bigotry and prejudice underlying our religious, social and civil inequality. I don't think we've taken Gold's and White's lessons to heart.

This battle between "the religious" vs. "the gays" will continue ad infinitum (ad nauseum, if you'd like) until we are able to change hearts and minds, and until an acceptable mass, although maybe not majority, of religious folks agree that civil discrimination against LGBT people is wrong.

We're already seeing some movement in that direction: The Mormon Church supported a pro-LGBT civil nondiscrimination ordinance in Salt Lake City. The fact that the D.C. Archdiocese is arguing this from a religious freedom standpoint rather than an anti-gay, "God doesn't approve of homosexuality" standpoint is remarkable.

As we anticipate which state our next marriage equality journey might lead us, we should immediately consider approaching this issue from a spiritual and moral angle. For example, TV, radio and print ads could showcase religious leaders standing up for our equality and images of LGBT-led families attending worship services, while stressing the universal love of Christ.

I can imagine it now:

The camera pans across the front of a suburban-looking white church, and then across a sitting congregation inside the building. As the narrator begins speaking, the camera focuses in on different families, including LGBT families: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. Jesus said there were but two great commandments. That you love God..." and then the camera focuses in on the narrator who is, in fact, the preacher/priest: "...and that you 'Love your neighbor as yourself..." as the screen then turns black with big, bold white letters while the narrator speaks: "...'There is no commandment greater than these.'" A second narrator comes in at the end: "You love God and you love your family and friends. Do what love requires on Nov. 3rd. Vote No on Amendment 10."

What a way to pull at Christian, swing voter heartstrings from our point of view, right? The other side does it, so why don't we fight back on their turf and their terms?

We will continue to see religious groups like the D.C. Archdiocese, and individuals and small business owners, throw up these kinds of religious freedom arguments until we're able to get to the point where almost all people agree civil discrimination is wrong and a good number of people agree that private discrimination is just as wrong. To do that, we'll have to address the root of anti-LGBT prejudice and bigotry. We'll have to speak about God, the Bible, church and religion, no matter how much it scares us.

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Great points, Matt. I think your idea for a commercial is terrific. We absolutely need to use pro-LGBT religious arguments--and I say that as an agnostic.

This past summer at Hartford Pride I noticed that of all the booths and tents there nearly half were churches that were openly accepting of all GLBTI's and eager to engage them and hoping to bring them in as congregants. I found this refreshing to experience that religious organizations were openly accepting of me, my friends and my community.

I've been in a few different churches, synagogues, temples and mosques. Some were exclusionary for one thing or another. (typically race or ethnicity) but sometimes it was to bar people from a different version of their religion. But they get to be exclusionary. It’s really part of religion itself. Look around a lot of the conflicts around the world come down to exclusionary practices by religions.

So long as they understand that they can be exclusionary in their private place but cannot be exclusionary in public places they can hate all they want. I mean, look at the KKK. It’s got a church affiliate. Do you think they allow just anyone to join or even walk in to its spaces? I’m sure that even the janitor is whiter than me.

However, if a church is taking any government money to offer services that are typically government tasks then the church either needs to honor its contract with the government to the letter of the law or remove itself from the contact and services immediately.
I think that Jesus was right. Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.

I still think that the faith based initiative was wrong as it placed federal funds into religious coffers to support government services that should have remain held in the public domain.

I live in Washington, DC. An amazing 79% of white voters in public opinion polling have indicated support for same sex marriage. The city council does not intend to send the issue to the voters for a referendum, with 11 of the 13 members currently co-sponsers.

The Catholic Church's strategy is :
1) disinformation
2) working with right wing republicans in the US Congress
3) exciting the black community.

1. Concerning the disinformtion, they claim that they will be forced to cease social services, Catholic Charities, AA meetings at their facilities if there is same sex marriage. The truth is that they MIGHT decide to do this, only because they would be subject to the city's Human Rights (non-discrimination) statute in some very few instances.
The Catholic Church used these same arguments of doctrine and right to discriminate in the 1980's when the Archbishop ordered Georgetown University ( a Catholic school) to shut down the gay/lesbian group. The gays and lesbians fought back in court , and the WON BIGTIME, with the church being ordered not only to permit the organization or forgo all government benefits , but they also had to pay more than $1 Million dollars of legal fees for the gay / lesbian students. The COurt ruled that if the Church is taking public funds for various programs, it must also be bound by the Human Rights law.
The Church cried wolf in the 1980's . It did not close down Georgetown University, and as a matter of fact, this year the university opened a LGBT Center. Congratulations to the students of the '80s who fought back.
The Church can continue all of its social programs if it uses its own money. They are asking for an unreasonable exception, the right to discriminate against LGBT, while using public funds as city contractors. The city would continue all the social programs without interruption, using different contractors.
Very likely, among the qualified bidders for these currently Catholic contracts, would be other religious groups, including the Episcopalians, who fully are supporting the same sex marriage law.

2. For those of you who do not know, the District of Columbia is "the last colony". We have no voting member of the US House of Representatives, or the US Senate. All of our city laws are subject to review by the US Congress, with the right to veto anything, even as small as the amounts to charge at parking meters. Nancy Pellosi has said that she will not allow this to come for a vote in the House, and Reid has been supportive in the Senate. However, the city could be blackmailed indirectly with other legislative maneuvers, such a holding up our federal payment ( what the rest of the country pays us for supplying all the police protection, etc to all the federal buildings and the employees who commute into DC every day to work, and go home to Maryland or Virginia at night, but whom we may not tax). So, in other words, anything is possible with the US Congress possibly involved.

3. The Catholics have banded earlier in this fight with a fundamentalist Baptist Minister called Bishop Harry Jackson from Maryland, who is giving speeches about the unmanly gays, the vileness of their sex acts, the unnaturalness, etc. Part of any strategy must be to shame the Catholics (the sooner the better) for taking such a low road.

Last summer, DC passed a law recognizing same sex marriages from other jurisdictions. This has been on the books since July 7, 2009. So far, none of the catastrophes predicted by the Catholic Church have occurred. I am not aware, and the Catholics do not cite, any such problems in other places where there have been same sex marriages, such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, and for awhile in California. They are literally chicken-littles crying that the sky is falling.

An interesting note: The Catholic Church only was involved in 6 out of a pitifully small 102 adoptions in DC last year. According to National Public Radio, an astounding 25% of all DC adoptions last year were by gays and lesbians, including many hard to place "special needs" children. In other words, the Church has failed totally in promoting adoptions among its straight brethren.

In the area now comprising the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington (until 1947 it was part of the Baltimore Archdiocese), the Catholic Church previously owned slaves, and also ran racially segregated institutions in Washington, DC. Surprise, I am my self a Catholic (I will not be kicked out) , and in my own Church (as one example) there once was separate seating for blacks and for whites. Of course, these situations are not unique among Catholics. However, they are indications that the Church is not usually a leader in recognizing civil rights.
As for their claims of being forced to violate their doctrines, the Catholics do not permit priests to marry, and have wives and children. However, just last week, the Pope himself cut a special deal in his attempt to poach Anglican and Episcopal clergy (even of married with kids) to jump ship and to join the Catholics. IN DC, there are already such married clergy, former Episcopalians who were women haters, and came over to avoid the female clergy in their church.

It would be a big mistake to allow the Church to get away with an exemption, allowing it ti discriminate against whomever it wants, citing doctrine. We live in a pluralistic society, and there is a coalition of over 200 clergy representing dozens of denominations who all fully support the proposed same sex marriage law.

I agree with your post that the religious arguments must be engaged, but in order to do so, it requires a huge factual background about the local situation here in DC.

Finally, the Catholic leaders have always opposed every issue that was gay related, whether concerning housing, employment, gay student organizations, etc. One should ask them, "What's new"?.

The July law recognizing same sex marriages from other jurisdictions was challenged by the above mentioned Bishop Harry Jackson (Baptist) and the court ruled that civil rights issues under the Human RIghts statute were not subject to a popular referendum. This is why the Catholic Church is currently so steamed, and calling for a vote. When was the last time they ever allowed an internal vote on anything in their authoritarian organization?

The Approve Referendum 71 campaigned sought out support from faith based communities early on and it paid off. The more support we got from faith communities, the more our opponents appeared to be the fringe minority.

Their faith statement in support of our campaign was very powerful, and can be found here

Bishop Harry Jackson is not Baptist, he is non-denominational. Baptists do not have bishops.

With all my respect for Matt Comer, who I admire, I wonder which religious persuasions we'd be trying to communicate with. Even Christianity varies greatly. As a gay Roman Catholic northerner, I know there's that underlying tension between myself and someone like the Southern Protestant Matt. In a sense, we are born enemies. But I still love Matt's idea, overall.

Obviously our religious marketing and advertising would have to be tailored to the demographics we are trying to reach. If we are working in the South, my example would work. Maybe it'd work in the Mid-West and maybe even the West Coast in conservative pockets. If we are working in a state with a high population of Roman Catholics, perhaps my example would need some tweaking.

Yes, Matt, it probably could be tailored (without ever making it dishonest, of course). Or it could be geared to a pan-Christian viewpoint, since so many of the basics are agreed on by all the Christian variations.

Their reaction to that commercial would be "we do love our gay brothers and sisters, that's why we have to stand up against their evil, make their lives as hard as possible (insert anything from discrimination to the death penalty by torture) so others will be dissuaded, and pray they repent."

There's also that little problem that their interpretation of their (false) deity's proclamation about being gay is a lot more authentic than tolerance. God hates us. Yes, God hates shrimp too, but you're more likely to hurt the shellfish industry with that argument than to advance gay rights.

Donna Pandori Donna Pandori | November 13, 2009 9:08 AM

Matt, I'm glad you covered this issue. This is one of the number one talking points used to sway votes against LGBTs. My very first thought when they spew this garbage is what about my religous freedom!

They say that without a religious exclusion, the bill could force them and other religious groups receiving money from the city to "give same-sex couples medical benefits, open adoptions to same-sex couples and rent a church hall to a support group for lesbian couples.

If they are receiving tax dollars from those same-sex couples then they should provide services to them.

I think this should be definitely be a /piece/ of the fight, just not convinvced it's swing the troops enough.

The real issue that I have with the religious argue our rights are infinging on theirs is that their rights currently infringe on ours. I would not want to hire a religious person for my wedding services I could be guilty of discrimination because religious status is a protected class in most areas.

Amen, Matt. Amen.


Great post. I thought it was one of our best of the day.

Very good piece. Glad that I am not of a religion that teaches bigotry. But I am troubled that so many in our culture practice faiths that have institutional bigotry.

I've always loved the idea of fighting "Christian" hate with the teachings of Jesus, who was pretty much all about treating your neighbors with respect. Having grown up in a split UCC/Presbytarian church, I'd say that a commercial like that would have definite appeal to mainline protestants. Of course, a lot of them are already with us, so hopefully it works with other groups too.

Tangential to your post, but I'm just so fed up with this idea - spread primarily by the Catholic Church - that suspending government funding to groups that discriminate is somehow religious discrimination. Freedom of religion is a constitutionally protected right, but there is NO "right" to government funding. If any church is going to take government money they have to play by the government's rules. If they don't want to play by those rules, they can't take the money. Why is this controversial?

So, do Catholic organizations currently refuse health benefits, or downright refuse to employ people who break other Catholic rules? Must everyone go to Confession on a regular basis? Do they hire divorced people [who have not had anullments]? Do they check to make sure no one on the payroll is using birth control, or having sex out of wedlock?

If they do those things -- i.e., are consistent with their own doctrine in every other instance when employing and giving benefits to their workers, then they _might_ have a better argument when they say a law might force them to do something they find repugnant.

But I have this really strong hunch that their eyes are averted for convenience's sake in most of the cases I've described. They have decided to pick and choose within their comfort zones, and discriminate when they feel uncomfortable [or feel the group in question is easy to pick out, and not likely to have strong allies].

A gay couple, legally married, not using contraception, and wishing a child could result from all of their sexual activities, would actually be following Catholic doctrine in more ways than most R.Catholics currently run their families and sex lives.

Those who are Christian and support gay rights need to be more vocal in their opposition to the religious right. There is still too much silence on that end. Don't stay quiet around religious bigots!

Just like how men need to speak up when their male friends act sexist, and whites need to speak up when their white friends act racist, if you truly care then it's your duty to take a stand.

I don't think the "debate is now firmly set"; the DC city council just rejected a broad religious exemption 4-1.

The Church made their threat, and the city chose not to believe them. As the one city councillor pretty much said, they'll just have to find a less childish organization to thrown taxpayer dollars at.

more explicitly Christian messaging might be something to try. we're 0-31, so it's not like we should be stifling people from thinking outside the box.

More challenges in court, and more lawmakers with guts to say 'bye bye' churches 'bye bye'. No more millions for you! That sounds like a better strategy to me. It's all about the money, and when churches see their public funding dry up they will quickly change their tune.

Who has the credibility to win the hearts and minds of Christians? Gay Christians, like the members of the Gay Christian Network ( who are doing it already...see Washington essay about it

I suggest something additional.

I think that it would be great if people like you had an organization that made it a point to have real live LGBT persons in small groups of 2,3, or 4 go to friendly or open churches to speak at different programs. It is amazing how many people in different parts of the country say that they do not personally know a gay person, and how many say that they have never had a conversation with one. Surveys show that this type of personal contact has a huge positive effect in supporting (voting for?) gay issues.

I would envision that the gay participants would have a few training sessions, on what the main points of the message should be, how to handle hostile questions, and what to avoid or to emphasize. I am surprised that even in denominations that are gay friendly (such as the Episcopalians) I have heard middle aged persons say that they have never know a homosexual, and how sorry they feel for "them." They are a bit taken aback when I let them know that I am both gay an married to a man.

Obviously, the LGBT speakers should totally avoid any discussion of the religious doctrine of any denomination, and stick to people to people issues. ("I'm the gay son taking care of my mother with Alzheimers" , "I am a lesbian former army sergent", etc.

This reminds me of the "homophile movement" (look it up in Wikipedia). Many homophile groups of the 1950's and 1960's went out to meet people/groups in this fashion. I attended such a meeting as an observer in the early 1970's in Boston. I think that this could be a great interfaith effort of lots of the LGBT religious groups also, since they are generally scorned by their own denominations, and spend lots of their time licking their wounds and wondering if things will ever get better.

You are entirely correct that the religious groups can not be ignored.

Hey Matt...

Great point. One of the keys to speaking the language of faith, it seems to me, is having it come from people with history in the faith traditions. It can either be that the speakers are still active (like the hundred-plus Catholics in Maine who spoke up for marriage equality) or formerly active (gay Mormons no longer accepted by the LDS).

Here's an example I've wondered about. I've never been Catholic, but at one point I was talking to a couple of Catholic schools about enrolling my son. The administrators and teachers I spoke with took great pride in their schools being a welcoming, accepting space for kids from non-Catholic families. Those kids were a minority, and would end up being observers, not direct participants, in some stuff. But, they insisted that the schools were well-equipped to respect their non-Catholic students without stigmatizing them.

With my limited exposure to the working dynamics of Catholic schools and churches, I don't know how universal my experience is. It would make sense to me, though, that some independent-thinking Catholics might have been reached in Maine if pro-equality Catholics appealed to the sense of fairness and respect historically shown to non-Catholic kids in their schools.

It could go something like: The Jewish/Hindu/agnostic/Protestant kids in our schools have never tarnished our kids' Catholic education. Our history and our faith prove that loving, respectful of inclusion of kids from all families works, even when we disagree deeply. Welcoming children from lesbian- and gay-parented families and integrating them fully in Maine public schools is one more step in that tradition. Even if we disagree, we can live side-by-side with our neighbors in peace; they won't dilute our values or distract us from what matters in our own families and churches.

This has been key to Soulforce actions, of course, starting with Mel White's outreach to his former colleagues.

The other thing that makes sense to me, especially when advocating for public policy change, is acknowledging publicly that people of faith are not being asked to change their beliefs. Excommunicated Catholics and Mormons may be pressing for changes in church teachings, but that's not what Prop 8 or Question 1 were about.

Catholic social service agencies have not turned away homeless Muslims or atheists, and they have always had the right to refuse to marry mixed-faith and previously divorced couples who had no problem getting a valid marriage license from local authorities.

These kinds of long-standing traditions show charity to all as well as ability to discern and discriminate appropriately between sacraments and acts of compassion. Catholicism has been strengthened, not compromised, by co-existing peacefully with people of other faiths. I can appreciate and celebrate the good that has come from that without being Catholic myself, and ask for similar respect for my life and relationship. People of faith can disagree with me as strongly as they do about the wisdom of mixed-faith marriages without me expecting to change their core beliefs.

It's tricky, of course, because so many of the anti-gay folks also fight any public acknowledgment that lgbt people exist. That's not respectful coexistence.

Bringing religion into politics is a vindictive act of bigotry and discrimination against atheists like myself. Sadly, I experience far more of this kind of bigotry in the lgbt community than I ever have heterosexist bigotry in the atheist community.

Libhomo... what do you suggest then? Should we just ignore the religious and emotional messaging our opponents throw out in every single instance (31 and counting) where we've lost marriage votes? Academically and legally, our arguments based on law and the constitution are right, no doubt about it. But academic and intellectual arguments rarely win over emotion-laden decision making and voting.

I'm sorry you see it as vindictive. I see it more as LGBTIQ people of faith becoming vocal, visible and relevant. All too often guilt, shame and anger keep many of us from acknowledging the spiritual parts of our selves. This is just a sign to me of burgeoning maturity.

I disagree that "we have to use religion." What we need to do is to isolate the leadership of antigay religious bigotry in our struggle for civil equality, while advancing religion neutrality as in separation of church and state.

Many LGBT people are skeptical or even hostile toward religion. Gay organizations used to advance separation of church and state arguments, but today both HRC and NGLTF have "religion desks" to put positive spins on gays and religion. Gay film festivals are replete with films promoting a reconciliation of gays and religion. And all this is taking place at a time when polls show a growth in numbers of people calling themselves atheists or other types of "free thinkers."

I say that we continue to welcome the backing of pro-gay religious folk, while maintaining a separation of church and state stance. Take on and isolate bigot leadership of churches involved in campaigns against our civil rights.


Are you familiar with this guy, John Corvino? I think that it is worth looking at his web-site, as well as listening to his uploads on YouTube. He is a university professor, who is doing something along the lines of what you are calling for.

I will be interested to hear what you think of these.

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