From a distance, Gov. Nathan Deal and Gov. Pat McCrory appear to be similar.
Both are conservative governors of Southern states where religion plays a strong role in public and private lives. They both live and govern during times of rapid change, particularly with the way society treats gay and transgender people.
But the two – with so much in common – have arrived at different conclusions to the same basic question. Should people be allowed to discriminate against their neighbors based on their sexual orientation or gender identity?
In Georgia, Deal decided to veto legislation that targeted gay and transgender people. In North Carolina, McCrory pushed through legislation in a hastily called, one-day special session of the legislature to overturn a local ordinance in Charlotte that protected people from discrimination. His recent executive order does little to correct that damage he helped to create.
The North Carolina law not only dehumanizes gay and transgender people and mandates discrimination against transgender people in all government, including educational buildings, it also blocks them from suing in state court to redress discrimination in the workplace. It even goes so far as to stop localities from raising the minimum wage, making it harder for women and people of color to climb out of poverty.
While religion can play an important role in the lives of elected officials, there’s a difference between their duties and obligations and those of faith leaders. The U.S. Constitution guarantees that no faith can be required to perform a marriage, for example, that violates its beliefs. Elected officials, however, must treat everyone fairy and equally.
In both Georgia and North Carolina, the governors faced extreme pressure from the business community, which opposed the anti-LGBT legislation.
Disney and Marvel, for example, told Deal that if he signed the law, they’d take their business elsewhere. In North Carolina, PayPal canceled a planned expansion in Charlotte, costing the state 400 new jobs.
Beyond the impact of the business community’s actions and deeds, Deal and McCrory made their decisions from very different religious perspectives.
As attitudes toward gay and transgender people have rapidly shifted and same-sex marriage has become the law of the land, different faith communities have begun to consider how they should respond.
There are many open and accepting communities of faith, which welcome gay and transgender people with open arms and happily perform weddings for loving same-sex couples.
Unfortunately, many evangelicals continue to advocate discriminatory measures. Instead of targeting gay and transgender people for discrimination, instead of repeating the sins of Rome, which attacked and persecuted early Christians as lesser people, we encourage all people of faith to support freedom, justice and equality for all our friends, families and neighbors, regardless of who they are or who they love.
As McCrory’s decision to force through hateful legislation that hurts all of North Carolina shows, we still have a way to go. But Deal, a Southern Baptist in the heart of the Southern Baptist Convention, shows us that progress is possible and offers an example for how political leaders can approach issues of gay and transgender inclusion.
“As I’ve said before, I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia of which my family and I are a part of for all of our lives,” Deal said. “This is about the character of our state and the character of its people. Georgia is a welcoming state filled with warm, friendly and loving people. Our cities and countryside are populated with people who worship God in a myriad of ways and in very diverse settings. Our people work side-by-side without regard to the color of our skin, or the religion we adhere to. We are working to make life better for our families and our communities. That is the character of Georgia. I intend to do my part to keep it that way.”
Later this month, lawmakers in North Carolina will have a chance to undo the damage done when they tried to turn back the clock on progress and to dehumanize entire communities within their state.
As they consider their faith and the law, we hope that they will hear Deal’s words and remember that the teachings of Christ call upon on us all to love one another and to stand against persecution. We all – for our flaws and imperfections – are made in the image of God.
Rev. David Key is the founding pastor of the multi-denominational Lake Oconee Community Church, a native of Georgia and a graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Rev. Dr. Terence Leathers is the pastor of the Mount Vernon Church in Clayton.