Love, acceptance and religious freedom

I became a bishop in the United Methodist Church 31 years ago. My wife, Julia, and I coordinated, designed and wrote the Disciple Bible Study, which is used in churches across America and around the world. This work has allowed us to travel our nation. During that time, I have seen a lot of changes.

I am proud to live in a country that values justice and fair play. I am proud that America is a land where every barrel stands on its own bottom – slavery has been abolished, “whites only” restaurants are forbidden, women have the right to vote. As a bishop, I was pleased to appoint Hispanic pastors, give women ministers large churches (even welcome a female bishop) and help African-American pastors gain advancement.

It is hard to admit now, but for many years I didn’t think about gay or lesbian people. I did not understand (or worry about) my energetic popular youth fellowship leaders who did not date. Some of my Wesleyan Service Guild women lived together and helped fix food for our fellowship suppers. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that I began to ponder this issue.

When you hear from gay and lesbian people about the indignity they have experienced from being turned away just because of who they are, it makes me think of the countless examples of people who were once shunned by society but were welcomed by Jesus. Jesus treated all people as human beings, children of God. He reached out to Mary Magdalene, to a hated Roman soldier and to the Samaritan woman who had been married five times.

The story of the New Testament is one

of love and acceptance.

In North Carolina, where my wife and I spend our summers, a bill has been proposed that would allow people to claim the right to ignore any law, policy, regulation or government action, simply because they disagree with the law as a matter of faith or conscience. This could allow for people to be turned away from public businesses because of factors like their race, religion or sexual orientation. For me legislation like this is the opposite of Jesus’ call for inclusion.

Clergy people and churches have the right to decide who they will and will not marry, and that is the way it should be. No church or minister can be compelled to perform a marriage ceremony that is outside his or her faith traditions or beliefs. That protection is guaranteed.

But businesses that serve the public should be available to everyone on the same terms. We can protect gay and lesbian people and protect religious freedom. There is no conflict in those ideas. Churches continue to decide who they marry, and we make sure that public services and public businesses are available to all.

In my lifetime, our country has changed a great deal, but one constant is that as a people we value fairness and justice. House Bill 348 and Senate Bill 550 would open the door to violating these shared values, and I strongly encourage the North Carolina General Assembly to oppose these bills.

As we work to live our lives as followers of Jesus, we should hold close his message of kindness and love, and strive to treat all people fairly and as we would hope to be treated. When we do that, we are truly living our faith.

Richard Wilke lives in Kansas but spends summers at Lake Junaluska in Haywood County, N.C.