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More than 100 faith leaders unite to denounce Tennessee GOP's 'slate of hate'

Supporters of the state bills have defended them on grounds of religious freedom, but LGBTQ advocates see them as state-sanctioned discrimination.
A man walks through the hall outside the House and Senate chambers, in Nashville, Tennessee on Jan. 7, 2019.
A man walks through the hall outside the House and Senate chambers, in Nashville, Tennessee on Jan. 7, 2019.Mark Humphrey / AP file

Dozens of religious leaders in Tennessee have added their signatures to a statement denouncing the 2019 “slate of hate” — a nickname advocates have given to 12 bills introduced by conservative lawmakers in the state.

Each of the proposed bills would limit the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Tennesseans in some way — from protecting adoption agencies that turn them away, to criminalizing transgender people for using public facilities that align with their gender identity, to banning same-sex marriage. One of the bills, House Bill 563, which LGBTQ advocates deem “a business license to discriminate," advanced in the Republican-dominated Tennessee House of Representatives on Thursday.

"As leaders of faith communities, we oppose these bills in the Tennessee General Assembly,” the religious leaders' statement reads. “They promote discrimination rather than justice and demean the worth of LGBTQ people in our state.”

Rev. Elaine Blanchard, a pastor at First Christian Church in Union City, Tennessee, is one of more than 100 clergy who signed the statement. She said the bills are “mean-spirited.”

“I just believe that all people represent the image of God, and so I don’t appreciate when people who represent me and speak for me begin to exclude people or make laws that would limit people’s basic human rights,” she told NBC News.

The dozens of signatures represent a push for acceptance in a state where politics has been historically influenced by religion, according to Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, an LGBTQ advocacy group that issued the statement.

“There has been a growing movement of acceptance among many clergy in the state,” Sanders said, “but it’s one of the largest public statements that I have seen.”

Image: Mary Louise McCullough
Mary Louise McCulloughNicole Gagliano

Rev. Mary Louise McCullough, a pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in Nashville, said she added her name to the statement because the legislation “sets us back generations in terms of treating people unjustly.”

“We’re going to stand in favor of what we think the gospel says, which is that all are welcome into the kingdom of God,” she said.

Representatives who introduced the bills have defended them on grounds of religious freedom and protections for women and children in sex-segregated spaces, but LGBTQ advocates see them as a guise for state-sanctioned discrimination.

“They attack our relationships,” Sanders said, “they attack our ability to educate for nondiscrimination protections in our local government, they attack our ability to exist in public spaces in some cases, and I can add they attack our ability to form families.”

Dozens of anti-LGBTQ bills to be considered in state legislatures

The so-called slate of hate represents just a handful of the approximately 100 bills state legislatures will consider across the United States in 2019 that could have a negative impact on LGBTQ Americans.

In 2017, at least 129 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced across 30 states with 12 eventually becoming law, according to LGBTQ advocacy organization Human Rights Campaign, which tracks such legislation. Last year, HRC estimated 110 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced with only two becoming law.

Currently, 30 states lack laws that fully protect against LGBTQ discrimination, according to the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ think tank.

Earlier this month, congressional Democrats introduced the Equality Act, a bill that would modify existing civil rights legislation to ban discrimination against LGBTQ people in employment, housing, public accommodations, jury service, education, federal programs and credit. If passed, the federal bill would be the first to protect LGBTQ people across all 50 states.

But the Equality Act is seen by many conservative Christian groups as a threat to religious liberty.

“Where the original Civil Rights Act of 1964 furthered equality by ensuring that African-Americans had equal access to public accommodations and material goods, the Equality Act would further inequality by penalizing everyday Americans for their beliefs about marriage and biological sex,” the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank, stated on its website.

More religious Americans embrace LGBTQ community

Rev. Brice Thomas, a pastor at Holy Trinity Community Church in Nashville, who added his name to the statement, said the Tennessee signatories represent a coalition of progressive Christian churches sprouting up across the U.S.

Image: Thomas Brice.
Rev. Dr. Brice ThomasMsDig Photography

“We are a ... theological coalition of progressive Christians who reject the fundamentalist church and their attempt to demonize people in the name of God, because we do not believe that is what God thinks of LGBT people,” he said.

Religious communities throughout the country are becoming more accepting of the LGBTQ community, according to a study from the Pew Research Center. About 62 percent of those polled said homosexuality should be accepted: Among them, 70 percent of Catholics, 66 percent of mainline Protestants, and 36 percent of Evangelicals.

And majorities of all religious groups now favor state laws that protect LGBTQ people when it comes to jobs, housing and public accommodations, according to a poll released by the Public Religion Research Institute this month.

But as a wave of LGBTQ acceptance spreads through the pews, many religious leaders continue to condemn it from the pulpits.

In February, leaders of the United Methodist Church, which represents the second-largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., voted to maintain language in the church’s official documents that would “prohibit gay, lesbian, and bisexual people from being ordained as ministers and also prohibits Methodist ministers from officiating same-sex marriages,” according to the HRC.

And while a majority of Catholics now support same-sex marriage, and many parishes welcome LGBTQ members, Pope Francis has sent mixed messages on the issue. He has called for gay people to be protected from ‘unjust discrimination,’ while criticizing transgender identities and upholding the church’s stance that marriage can be only between a man and a woman. During a Mass service in the Philippines in 2015, the pontiff said same-sex marriage is threatening the institution of the family.

"The family is threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, of relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life," Francis said.

Even as they continue to face rejection in some religious circles, LGBTQ churchgoers aren’t giving up their faith. Many are finding sanctuary in progressive churches such as Nashville's Holy Trinity Community Church, according to Thomas. The pastor said his church is organizing a support service to help those hurt by religion-based homophobia.

“While the fundamentalist church may have been a source of trauma, the progressive church can be an answer to it,” Thomas said. “We can be the healing that people need.”