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Finding Common Ground Amid Contentious Debates

Does the U.S. Constitution require religious exemptions to certain LGBT rights?

Can state laws protect the full and equal enjoyment of public facilities by LGBT people despite religious objections of some store owners?

How should we respond to religious and other differences over matters of human sexuality?

These are the questions that people are wrestling with in legal circles, theological circles and social circles. And they defy easy answers.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not answered the constitutional question.

In the Masterpiece Cakeshop case decided last year, the court sided with a baker who refused to prepare a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because it found the bakery had not received a fair (religiously neutral) hearing.

The court neither resolved the broader conflict that has arisen between religious objections and state anti-discrimination laws nor offered guidance for the many related legal conflicts facing civil rights and religious liberty.

Almost a year after Masterpiece, we’ve continued to see disputes about this intersection of religious and legal understandings of human sexuality and identity.

Federal legislation that addresses some of these issues will be pursued in this Congress, though prospects for passage seem dim.

Apart from political divisions, there are difficulties in even coming together for honest conversations.

The conflicts have taken a toll on various communities where advocates pursue their goals without sufficient concern for competing interests.

But, accommodating religious differences is not a new challenge under our constitutional order.

While the challenges will continue for the foreseeable future, academic and legal leaders came together to create a much-needed, thoughtful resource.

Religious Freedom, LGBT Rights and the Prospects for Common Ground” is a collection of essays that brings together leading voices from different perspectives, including the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, to take on some of the most difficult issues between LGBT rights and some faith communities.

As described in the introduction, the essays are intended to offer a “360-degree view of culture war conflicts around faith and sexuality.”

The book explores “whether communities with such profound differences in belief are able to reach mutually acceptable solutions in order to live with integrity.”

The book’s editors, William N. Eskridge Jr. and Robin Fretwell Wilson, convened an open dialogue and search for common ground by engaging an impressive group of ecclesiastical leaders, LGBT rights advocates, seminary presidents, theologians and equality and religious liberty scholars and activists.

Their discourse and feedback led to the essays, which examine the possibilities and perceived limits of reconciling differences.

The book is organized to help frame civil dialogue and find guiding principles to mediate conflicts, as well as explore specific perspectives from faith traditions and civil rights law.

It also addresses the significant practical challenges that arise in the context of higher education and public accommodations laws.

I focus my chapter on putting the conflicts in a broader perspective. Drawing on our first principles that protect religious liberty for all, “Why Money Matters: LGBT Rights and Religious Freedom” reviews the historical and practical ways we live with our religious differences.

The United States’ legal tradition of protecting religious liberty seldom operates in absolute terms; religious liberty is not protected the same way in every context.

When religious institutions accept government money, for example, they undercut their broad claims for religious autonomy.

The book’s editors note that “[r]eaders almost certainly will disagree with something in the volume. But whatever policy prescription Americans ultimately embrace, it is essential to develop a public understanding of what is at stake.”

Indeed, BJC is deeply grateful for the way this effort reveals the complexity of the issues and the tremendous goodwill needed to build bridges and find a positive way forward in our policy debates.

Throughout our history, BJC has been called to promote an understanding of religious liberty that honors its God-given roots and the legal conditions that allow it to flourish in a pluralistic society.

Individuals and religious communities that share our commitment to religious liberty for all understand the importance and difficulty of our work, especially as we navigate a changing landscape.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column originally appeared in the November/December 2018 edition of Report from the Capital. This article is part of a weeklong series. Previous articles in the series are:

Why Your Church Should Cultivate Their Queer Imagination by Cody J. Sanders

When You Need Christ’s Love, Leave It to The Samaritans by Paige Hardy

Why Church Volunteers Need Training to Work with Transgender Youth by Justin Joplin

Court Cases Foreshadow Dangerous Times for LGBTQ Equal Rights by Don Holladay

Unsure About Accepting LGBTQ Folks? God Gave You the Keys by Jim Dant

The Experience of Christian Parents of a Christian Gay Child by Greg and Kelly Otis

Crossing Chasm That Seemingly Divides Bible, LGBTQ Loved Ones by Preston Clegg

Holly Hollman

Holly Hollman is the general counsel and associate executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.