Should churches be prosecuted for LGBTQ discrimination?

Should churches be prosecuted for LGBTQ discrimination?

More and more evidence is emerging about the damaging effects conservative Christian attitudes towards homosexuality can have on the LGBTQ community. Christians claim the right to freedom of religion in defence, while LGBTQ people claim freedom from discrimination. Governments around the world are being pressured to decide which of these rights is more important.

‘The next big scandal’
In the UK, Christian charity founder Steve Chalke said that he believes some conservative churches’ treatment of LGBT people amounts to abuse, and is ‘likely to soon see a crop of high-profile prosecutions’.[1] Practices that are particularly problematic are those associated with ‘deliverance ministry’, whereby a gay person is subjected to ‘treatments’ designed to rid them of their demonic homosexual tendencies. This can include fervent communal praying, physical violence, or even a formal exorcism.[2] In 2019, UK prime minister Boris Johnson said that following a review the government would ban such conversion therapy, though no action has yet been taken.[3] [4]

Certain Christian attitudes to gay people such as exclusion, marginalisation, or special treatment can also be extremely psychologically damaging. It is leading some to self-harm or even suicide.[5] [6] A prominent figure in the Church of England, Jayne Ozanne, agrees with Chalke, and reckons that the Church’s spiritual abuse of LGBTQ people will be ‘the next big scandal’.[7] The Church of England has been rocked by decades of child abuse, recently exposed in a damning report.[8]

The price of freedom
Another report released in October 2020 found that some Church of England policies and stances towards homosexuality contributed towards the exploitation and ultimately the murder of a gay senior citizen, Peter Farquhar.[9] In his Oxfordshire church, which upheld a Conservative Christian theology, homosexuality was generally understood as ‘deviant and wrong’. The investigation found that this attitude led to Farquhar feeling unable to open up about his relationship with his abusive partner, who finally murdered him. The report found that ‘negative attitudes towards homosexuality and homosexual practice in the Church of England reinforce internalised homophobia’, and ‘exposes people to risk’. It calls for a ‘more open culture within the church’.[10]

Conservative Christian voices within the UK reject that they are not open to LGBTQ people. They say that they are welcomed like everyone else, as sinners in need of healing. Evangelical spokesperson David Robertson accused Chalke of changing the gospel message to suit his own personal ideology, and of trying to ‘intimidate and bully evangelicals into silence’.[11] From a similar perspective, prominent evangelical Colin Hart said that campaigners such as Chalke ‘want a veto on Christian preaching, and private prayer and discussion between ministers and members of their congregation’.[12]

The courts weigh in
Earlier in 2020, the US Supreme Court made a landmark ruling that employment discrimination on the basis of sex also applies to sexuality and gender identity.[13] In other words, employers are not able to discriminate against anyone on the basis of their sexuality (whether they are gay, straight, or bisexual) or their gender identity (including if they are transsexual, or their preferred gender does not correspond with their sex at birth). If employers are found to have denied someone employment, or dismissed them, because of their sexual preference or identity, legal action could be taken against them.[14]

Religious conservatives were outraged at the decision, believing it ‘erodes religious freedoms’, and undermines their ability to express their religious beliefs in the workplace. They are particularly concerned about institutions like churches, faith schools, and religious healthcare providers, which may be restricted in expressing their faith-based opposition to homosexuality or transsexuality. Evangelist Franklin Graham said that ‘Christian organisations should never be forced to hire people who do not align with their biblical beliefs and should not be prevented from terminating a person whose lifestyle and beliefs undermine the ministry’s purpose and goals’.[15]

Liberal vs. conservative worldviews
Clearly this is a complex and heated debate, with no simple answers. What underlies this debate is a disagreement around what it means to be homosexual. Liberals generally believe that people are born gay and that their homosexuality is an essential part of their identity as a human being. Any attack on their homosexuality is therefore an attack on their human rights.[16] [17] Conservatives, on the other hand, generally believe that people show homosexual tendencies because of sinful desires, or because they have been influenced by Satan. Their homosexuality is therefore an illusion, a (temporary) distortion of their true human nature, according to conservatives. This illusion must be eradicated through prayer or other Christian means.[18] Any attack on their attempts to do this is an attack on their freedom of religion, and the freedom of the ‘homosexual’ person to undergo such treatement if they wish.

How far should governments be able to interfere in churches’ (mis)treatment of LGBTQ people? At stake are important issues as freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and freedom from discrimination. With a landmark anti-discrimination law just passed in the US, and a ban on conversion therapy pending in the UK, the tide seems to be turning in favour of the liberals. However, conservative Christians will surely soon respond with a flurry of legal appeals.

Christians vs. the State is set to be a hard-fought contest.

Frazer MacDiarmid

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[1] Churches could soon face prosecution over LGBT treatment, says Steve Chalke
[2] UK churches urged to wake up to spiritual abuse of LGBT people
[3] Boris Johnson pledges ban on ‘gay conversion therapy’
[4] Ending conversion therapy
[5] Churches could soon face prosecution over LGBT treatment, says Steve Chalke
[6] UK churches urged to wake up to spiritual abuse of LGBT people
[7] UK churches urged to wake up to spiritual abuse of LGBT people
[8] C of E bishops should lose responsibility for safeguarding children, says inquiry
[9] Maids Moreton murder: C of E views on homosexuality ‘put victim at risk’
[10] Maids Moreton murder: C of E views on homosexuality ‘put victim at risk’
[11] Churches could soon face prosecution over LGBT treatment, says Steve Chalke
[12] Churches could soon face prosecution over LGBT treatment, says Steve Chalke
[13] Christian conservatives rattled after Supreme Court rules against LGBT discrimination
[14] Christian conservatives rattled after Supreme Court rules against LGBT discrimination
[15] Christian conservatives rattled after Supreme Court rules against LGBT discrimination
[16] Stances of Faiths on LGBTQ Issues: Episcopal Church
[17] Stances of Faiths on LGBTQ Issues: Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)
[18] Stances of Faiths on LGBTQ Issues: Southern Baptist Convention