Friday, February 14, 2014

Kansas Steps Backward, Bishops Cry Foul

As LGBT rights inch forwards around the country and many same-gender couples are finally able to dance at their own weddings, Kansas's step of choice for Valentine's Day week was a regressive moon-walk:

Kansas State Capitol
By Jim Emerson
Used by Creative Commons License

By a vote of 72-49, the Kansas House of Representatives empowered individuals, businesses and religious groups to refuse service to same-gender couples with impunity, if doing so would be "contrary to the sincerely held religious beliefs of the individual or religious entity regarding sex or gender."  The bill, which now moves to the senate, mentions not only retail business, but services such as adoption and counseling, as well as employment.  State employees are specifically protected by its language.

Interestingly, the measure does not specify whether one's objections need be "pro"or "con": theoretically, one can now choose to only employ or wait on LGBT people if called to do by one's faith.  It also does not specify by what means one is to determine the sexual orientation or gender identity of those against which one proposes to discriminate.

Kansas's two diocesan bishops issued a strongly-worded statement Friday that was sent to every member of the state Senate:

"This proposed legislation is reminiscent of the worst laws that permitted discrimination against people on the basis of color, sex or nation of origin. The intent of this bill is an affront to the beliefs of all Kansans who support equal treatment under the law for every human being," wrote the Right Rev. Dean E. Wolfe, Bishop of Kansas, and the Right Rev. Michael P. Milliken, Bishop of Western Kansas. "Kansas history is filled with examples of standing up for the expansion of rights – in our abolitionist, free state roots; as the first state in the country to elect a woman to a political office; and as a place identified with contributing to the end of school desegregation. We have a high calling to provide equality and equal opportunity to everyone."

 The bishops were quick to emphasize how their stance is in line with our church's core values:  "For Episcopalians, our faith is unequivocal. Our Baptismal Covenant asks, 'Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?' Promising to strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being requires us to be adamantly opposed to legislation that does none of these things," they wrote.  "Our biblically-based faith calls us to live out the command of Jesus Christ to love one another. You cannot love your fellow Kansans and deny them the rights that belong to everyone else."

Integrity's Kansas City chapter members were grateful for the support of their bishops.  "The acts of the Kansas legislature do not reflect the state of the Episcopal Church in Kansas. We will continue to stand for the dignity of every human being," stated Larry Bingham. "Eventually, 'we shall overcome'. Reason will prevail and recent advances in LGBT acceptance in the U. S. secular culture give me hope that the political value of this kind of hatred will be short-lived."

And, in the wake of widespread criticism of the bill, the Senate president Susan Wagle told the press that the majority of her colleagues will not vote for the bill. 

"Seeing a response such as our bishops gave is truly beautiful, a lift to the spirits of LGBT persons and our straight allies," said chapter convener Scott Schaefer.  "The fact that this bill gained any traction at all has refueled my purpose however, and hopefully motivated our spirits to remain active in sharing God's love to LGBT persons living in Kansas... to all people. 

"With the leadership of these bishops, we surely hear a call to ministry: sharing theology in a way that motivates love and diminishes fear, encourages a brave faith instead of exclusionary practices."

Christian Paolino is the Chair of Integrity's Stakeholders' Council and the Diocesan Organizer for Newark

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