Tensions have been riding high within the Christian community in recent years as the movement for LGBT+ inclusion has surged, birthing a host of legal challenges to controversial policies held by churches and other religious observers. It has begged the question of whether private entities have a constitutionally protected right to discriminate based upon an individual’s gender identity or sexual orientation.
Some of the most high-profile cases in the strain of constitutional law dealing with LGBT+ rights were those involving vendors who typically contracted for weddings, but refused to do so for same-sex clientele. In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 7-2, that in requiring a business owner to provide services for a same-sex wedding, contrary to his religious convictions, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had violated his right to religious free exercise under the First Amendment, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Court decided that because there were other businesses from which a same-sex couple could obtain a wedding cake, the business owner in question, Jack Phillips, would be subject to an undue burden if he were made to violate the tenets of his faith.
The latest development in this series of litigation was settled in a Grand Rapids district court on September 26, 2019. St. Vincent Catholic Charities, an adoption and foster agency based in Lansing, has a history of refusing to place children with same-sex couples, a policy motivated by the organization’s religious convictions and belief that marriage is a covenant strictly between one man and one woman. After St. Vincent and another prominent adoption agency, Bethany Christian Services, denied a request from a lesbian couple, the state of Michigan enacted a statute to terminate contracts with private agencies that refused to place children with homosexual parents. The state’s contract with St. Vincent Catholic Charities was set to expire on September 30, 2019, but the agency issued a challenge on the grounds of religious discrimination. Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker ruled in favor of the charity, citing the fact that the two agencies in question were among 58 private entities with which the state of Michigan held contracts, thus any same-sex couple with a desire to foster or adopt a child could do so with one of 56 other organizations. St. Vincent, then, should not be required to violate the Catholic convictions upon which the entire charity is predicated. Jonker went so far as to say that the state policy constituted a “targeted attack on a sincerely held religious belief,” indicating that St. Vincent Catholic Charities would likely prevail if further legal action were taken.
Hope College, too, has been subject to scrutiny regarding its stance on LGBT+ issues, particularly in regard to the controversial “Hope College Position Statement On Human Sexuality.” This document, published on the college’s website in 2011, reaffirmed its support for the understanding of marriage held by the Reformed Church of America, the church in which Hope has its historic roots. The statement defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman, a covenant that does not allow for same-sex relationships. Thus, the college refused to fund any group that could be perceived as endorsing or promoting the LGBT+ movement.
As many students are undoubtedly aware, the sexuality statement was removed during the summer of 2019, after which students returned to campus with talk of possible financial appropriations for LGBT+ groups. Many see this as the next step in affirming the college’s goal to be welcoming, concurrent with the document entitled “Hope’s Christian Aspirations,” which reads, “Hope seeks to be a community that affirms the dignity of all persons as bearers of God’s image.” This statement, perhaps, is an appropriate place to start when religious organizations, educational institutions and private businesses alike are made to deal with the dichotomy of religious free exercise versus non-discriminatory procedure. Acknowledging the inherent worth of every individual, regardless of faith or sexual orientation, is a standard that can alleviate some of the pains of controversy and unite a group of individuals in common courtesy for one another.