Versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), most recently passed in the states of Indiana and Arkansas, are being used by more conservative Christian groups as a platform for businesses to deny services to LGBT persons; and the nuances and unintended consequences of this legislation have been playing out in several states and in the Supreme Court over the last few years. Yet, each year, an increased percentage of Americans are in support of gay marriage; and more mainline Protestant denominations — most recently, the Presbyterian Church (USA) — are officially sanctioning same-sex marriage and ordaining LGBT persons to the ministry. This may be one reason why the religious freedom debate has been so fiercely (yet so narrowly) debated by more conservative Christians who are using the RFRA as a means of discrimination under the guise of “religious freedom.”
Within this debate lies an overarching trend that is present among American congregations. According to recent findings from the National Congregations Study (NCS), acceptance of gay and lesbian persons has increased within churches. In 2006, 37.4% of congregations in the U.S. said that they would “permit an openly gay or lesbian couple in a committed relationship to be full-fledged members of the congregation.” In 2012, just six years later, this increased to 48.0% (nearly half) of all U.S. congregations. The percentage of congregations that would “permit gays and lesbians to hold any volunteer leadership positions” also increased from 17.7% in 2006 to 26.4% in 2012.
While we might may suspect that some of these increases are only found in more liberal Protestant congregations, and that vast increases within these specific churches are driving overall increases, this is not the case. White liberal protestant, white conservative Protestant, and black Protestant churches all reflect percentage increases in acceptance of gay and lesbian members.
While American religion still has miles to go in the area of full inclusion (for example, many congregations would not even consider the ordination of a gay or lesbian person, much less transgender individuals), it is hopeful to see that attitudes are changing rapidly. In Indiana and around the country, many faith communities have spoken up and taken action against legislation like the RFRA, including the United Church of Christ; and the wider public is witnessing the stand that ministers and laypersons alike are making in the media around these discriminatory policies. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Chaves, Mark and Anderson, Shawna L. 2014. Changing American congregations: Findings from the third wave of the National Congregations Study. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53(4): 676-86.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1965, March 25. “Our God Is Marching On,” Selma, Alabama.