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And Justice for All: Embracing Sexual and Gender Diversity within the Faith Community

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Throughout June, cities around the country will be celebrating Pride Days to highlight the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons to society, with many congregations from a range of denominations holding Pride Worship services. Unfortunately, congregations that fully welcome LGBT persons into the faith community are still too small in number. 

Each week, I receive calls from gay men and lesbian women who are seeking a faith community. Their stories—whether they are Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, or Orthodox Jewish—are disturbingly similar. They loved the faith of their youth, but no longer feel welcome to return. They yearn for a faith community that will support them without forcing them to choose their religion over their sexuality.

While support for gay rights continues to increase among the general public, many faith communities lag behind. For instance, the country’s two largest denominations, the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Association, condemn same sex sexual behaviors and committed relationships. Many of the mainstream denominations—from the Episcopal Church to the Methodists to the Evangelical Lutherans—are currently facing controversies around ordination and marriage of gays and lesbians. 

The good news, however, is that supportive faith communities are growing in number as more religious leaders and institutions now recognize that people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities are assets to faith communities and society. At least ten denominations ordain openly gay and lesbian clergy, at least five have ordained transgender clergy, and nearly a dozen permit their clergy to officiate at civil unions or marriages of same sex couples.

Even denominations opposed to gay rights, among them Baptists, Mormons, and Roman Catholics, have within their midst independent organizations that are working for the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the faith community.

Last week, the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing issued an Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Sexual and Gender Diversitythat challenges religious leaders to use the pulpit to address the complex realities of sexual and gender diversity and to advocate in secular and faith-based contexts for justice and the full inclusion of LGBT people. The message in the letter reflects the belief that religious leaders who are committed to social justice have the opportunity and obligation to incorporate sexual justice into their vision of a just and loving society. The letter calls on them to teach their congregants to value the gender and sexual diversity within their communities.

The Open Letter, created by a coalition of theologians from Jewish, Christian, and Catholic backgrounds, laments the damage done to gay, lesbian, and transgender people by the silence, or worse, open condemnation of religious leaders. It says, “Some have mistakenly called homosexuality sinful when the real issue is heterosexism or the unjust privileging of heterosexuality. Heterosexism devalues gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, just as sexism and male privilege devalue women.”

The Open Letter goes on to say that “sexual and gender oppression can no longer be portrayed as virtuous and morally defensible” and that “using the Bible [or other religious texts] to exclude or attack people violates the very spirit of our traditions and is morally unconscionable.”

In addition, the Open Letter calls on clergy to use the pulpit and podium to acknowledge the complex realities of personal experience and to condemn discrimination and violence against LGBT persons. It further asks religious leaders to work within their own denominations and multi-faith organizations for sexual justice and the full social and legal inclusion of LGBT persons, including and beyond marriage equality.

The Open Letter urges religious leaders to take action to address the needs of LGBT congregants and their families. It calls on clergy to educate themselves and their faith communities on the diversity of human sexualities and gender identities. It asks religious leaders to receive training to be able to address the pastoral needs of congregants on issues related to sexual and gender diversity, such as the birth of an intersexed child, the coming-out process of a youth or adult, or an individual who is transitioning genders. 

In furtherance of this goal, in September 2007 the Religious Institute will publish a new study guide, “A Time to Seek: A Study Guide on Sexual and Gender Diversity,” to assist religious leaders and congregations in addressing these issues.

More religious leaders must speak out for the right of LGBT persons to live and love with dignity and respect in a world that understands sexual diversity is part of God’s intention for us. Support for LGBT persons is higher now than ever, but there is still much work to be done. Religious leaders who proclaim that sexual justice is an essential part of social justice can help people of faith and good will understand that the promise of “liberty and justice” must extend to everyone.

The Reverend Debra W. Haffner is the director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. The Open Letter is posted at www.religiousinstitute.org.

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