As a straight African-American minister who has lived in North Carolina for a significant portion of my life, I know my home state to be full of loving people. Serving as pastor of a multiracial congregation, it’s my obligation to ensure and promote a place where everyone feels welcome. I preach that there is a place for everybody at God’s table, no matter who you are or how you identify – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or straight. That’s why I recently joined nearly 1,300 other clergy in a friend-of-the-court brief to the Supreme Court in a key case regarding LGBTQ rights that is being heard this week.
Here in North Carolina, our LGBTQ brothers, sisters, neighbors and fellow parishioners have already carried a tremendous burden at the hands of legislators. When the now-notorious HB2 passed last year – which I opposed – it was a slap in the face to North Carolina’s LGBTQ community. It was also a stain on our state’s reputation, leading to a boycott of businesses and investors, resulting in millions of dollars in lost revenue. Most important, it put many hardworking North Carolinians and their families at risk of great danger in public places. This year, the legislature put forward a half-hearted “compromise” to fix the law, but the new version still permits discrimination.
As we grapple with this tremendous threat to basic dignity locally, a new danger has appeared on the horizon at the national level: This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a case pushed by anti-LGBTQ activists arguing that freedom of religion requires individuals and businesses to be allowed to discriminate. In this case, a Denver business owner refused to bake a cake for a same-sex couple for their wedding.
As a faith leader and a believer in the beloved community, it’s incomprehensible to me how anyone, much less the owner of a business that serves the public, could refuse to treat someone the same way as they’d treat anyone else. That attitude directly contradicts the Sermon on the Mount, which underlines the importance of loving people and emphasizes that we are the light of the world and that we show in public what the love of God looks like – even in a bakery. We represent and practice unconditional love.
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When opponents of LGBTQ equality claim that there is a conflict between freedom of conscience for Christians and following the law, particularly nondiscrimination laws, fair-minded Americans should search their hearts and reject this myth. Indeed, African-Americans are familiar with this attempt to justify discrimination: during the civil rights movement, business owners grasped for any reason they could, faith-based or otherwise, to refuse to treat black and white customers equally. The steady trajectory of American history indicates our country’s commitment to equal treatment, and must continue in that direction. We decided a long ago as a nation that when a business is open to the public, it can’t pick and choose whom to serve – it must be open to everybody on the same terms.
Faith leaders are speaking out because this Supreme Court case is about the fundamental question of whether businesses can discriminate against people because of who they are. Exemptions for individuals or groups based on religion would lead to a license to discriminate that could create a dangerous precedent and open up a legal can of worms by potentially allowing discrimination based on other factors as well. Religion should never be abused to treat others cruelly; and if these exemptions are enshrined into constitutional case law, it could become impossible for North Carolina to correct our own sin of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
In addition to my perspectives as a person of faith and church leader, I’ve worked in government, higher education and for the nonprofit sector. I know that the separation of church and state is very important – that’s why it’s a crucial part of the U.S. Constitution. But regardless of individual belief systems, I want to live in a society where each of us believes in the golden rule. My mission as a faith leader is to bring together, not to tear apart – to heal a world filled with so much division.
I’m unsure and frightened regarding who politicians and judges think they’re helping when they make it easier to discriminate – because it’s certainly not people of faith. I hope the U.S. Supreme Court will do the right thing and affirm fairness for everyone.
Rev. Dr. Terence K. Leathers is pastor at Mt. Vernon Christian Church in Clayton and a member of People For the American Way’s African American Ministers In Action.