I grew up in a deeply Christian family in Oklahoma, the heartland of America. We went to church three times a week and felt our faith required us to be good citizens and good neighbors. I was taught to believe, from the time I could speak, that every human being on the face of this earth is a child of God and deserving of my respect and care. I also learned about the good things Christians had done in our country. They led charge against slavery and then segregation. They were at the forefront of the women’s rights struggle, the labor movement, and the fight against child labor. The list goes on.
For these reasons, I applauded President Obama’s announcement that he would issue an executive order banning job discrimination among federal employees on the basis of gender identity. As an ordained Christian minister and president of Union Theological Seminary, I felt a combination of pride in my visionary country and joy in my Christian heart. It was so very, very right.
The president’s order is a laudable step toward making the country safer for a community that has, for too long, lived in fear. As a Christian, I believe we should resolutely celebrate this decision.
I was therefore devastated when I learned yesterday that a group of prominent faith leaders—my brothers and sisters in Christ—had asked that the President include a religious exemption in his forthcoming executive order. In other words, they asked that people of faith be given special permission to discriminate.
I was saddened, I was embarrassed, I was appalled. The faith that fought for justice for so many is now being used to justify injustice. The faith community that taught me to never throw stones was asking that Christians have a special permission to throw stones if they wanted. It’s simply theologically indefensible.
Clinton Global Citizen Award winner Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, currently a visiting scholar here at Union, has dealt with official government discrimination in his home country of Uganda. He has put his life on the line time and again protecting LGBTQ rights. He has long looked to America as a beacon of justice and hope in this area. As he put it, Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, to the oppressed and if our theologies are discriminatory then they are wrong. As people of faith we should be exemplary, not exempted.
I do not support a religious exemption that permits Christians to behave worse than their fellow citizens, and the president should not include it.
Serene Jones is President of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York where she holds the Johnston Family Chair in Religion and Democracy. She is Vice President of the American Academy of Religion, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and author of Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World. She tweets online at @SereneJones.