During the one-on-one interview, Cooper asked Barber if an individual could be an SBC member, a good Christian, and identify as LGBTQ+ at the same time. Barber emphatically answered, “No.”
I believe that sinners should be converted out of being sinners. And that applies to all of us. We’re committed to the idea of gender as a gift from God. We’re committed to the idea that men and women ought to be united with one another in marriage,” PinkNews quoted Barber saying.
The SBC president made the comment also as a way of explaining why the Baptist congregation is firmly against marriage between individuals of the same sex.
SBC’s Stand on Abortion
Aside from stressing the church’s view on same-sex marriage and Christians identifying as LGBTQ+, Barber explained SBC’s stand on abortion.
He said that the Baptist church takes an interest in the topic “not to police everybody’s sex life,” but because it thinks “that’s a human person who deserves to live.”
>Barber also addressed the statement made by Lauren Baubert that the church should guide the government in stopping legal abortions. The SBC president told Cooper that ‘the Baptist’s 400-year history runs contrary to Christian Nationalism.’
About Barber and the SBC
According to the website, Barber became the head of the SBC on June 14, 2022, following his victory over Tom Ascol for the SBC presidency. Barber reportedly gained at least 61% of the votes cast during the elections.
The article noted that Barber’s comments on various socio-political matters (including abortion and same-sex marriage) run consistently with the predominant beliefs of the Southern Baptist Convention. PinkNews said SBC maintains the LGBTQ+ community is “inherently sinful.”
Barber told Cooper he ran for SBC presidency because ‘God called him up to lead at this moment so Southern Baptists could move forward.’
According to the website, the anti-LGBTQ+, ultra-conservative SBC is not without its share of controversies, particularly allegations of sexual abuse by its church leaders.
PinkNews noted that in February 2019, a joint organization investigation uncovered more than 700 alleged victims of sex abuse by 400 Southern Baptist Church leaders. The San Antonio Express and the Houston Chronicle were among the investigation committee members.
The website disclosed that the church leadership waited for at least four months before forming an investigation committee and condemning the sexual abuse allegations against some of their leaders.
Consequently, the church leadership admitted in August this year that they are facing a federal investigation into the abuse allegations. The announcement came following several accusations and leaks that painted a mishandling of the church’s probe into the sexual abuse reports.
When volleyball coach Inoke Tonga was called in for a meeting with the leadership of Valor Christian high school in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, this fall, he thought he was about to be offered a promotion.
Instead, he was interrogated with a series of vague, leading questions that attempted to get him to admit he was gay.
Tonga had been out for years – and knew his contract never stated he couldn’t be gay and teach at Valor – but shame-filled memories of his closeted years as a young man rose up in that moment, as his job slipped away.
“They offered to help me stop being gay, with my ‘struggle’,” Tonga says. “They said I should take my time to decide if I will accept their help, and they’ll tell everyone I’m on a spiritual journey.”
The offer they made was for Tonga to attend some form of “conversion therapy”, and when he returned to announce he isn’t gay, cut off contact with his fiance, scrub his social media of any support for the LGBTQ community, and denounce his support for them before the school.
“They said a lot of parents pay a lot of money to go to Valor, just so their kids don’t have to mentored by someone who is gay,” he recalls.
Tonga declined their offer, and resigned.
Outrage on the part of students, parents, alumni and allies over Tonga losing his job for being gay is part of a decades-long battle between anti-discrimination laws and the right of private Christian schools (of which there are approximately 34,500 in the US alone) to religious freedom.
Ever since the 1964 Civil Rights Act threatened the tax-exempt status of Christian schools who refused to racially integrate, religious schools in the US have tangled with social justice activists seeking equal protections for minority students and employees.
Freedom to discriminate
In 2020, the supreme court ruled employment protections in the Civil Rights Act should extend to LGBTQ+ employees, thereby federally outlawing termination of an employee for their sexual orientation or being transgender. But buried deep within the Civil Rights Act is an exception for religious institutions who want to discriminate against employees of a different faith.
“So while a secular employer can’t say, ‘I’m not going to hire you because you’re Jewish, I only hire Catholics,’ the Catholic school can say that, because they’re exempt from the prohibition against religious discrimination,” says Joshua Block, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT & Aids project. “And religious schools have argued that that limited exception should be interpreted broadly to mean that I can discriminate against anyone based on my religious beliefs.”
Courts have, for the most part, been saying no to this argument, Block says.
But Tonga’s story is far from an isolated incident – even at Valor Christian high school, where a lesbian teacher was pressured to leave under similar circumstances.
Earlier this summer, music teacher Todd Simmons claimed he was fired from Our Lady’s Catholic Academy in Queens, New York, after filling out health insurance forms that revealed he was married to a man. A nearly identical scenario involving a gay music teacher fired from a Catholic school played out only a short distance away at the same time.
The issue is further complicated in states like Florida – where the line between public school and private religious school is sometimes blurred. Steven Arauz, a sixth-grade history teacher, found himself fired from a Seventh Day Adventist school – which is publicly funded with $1m a year in tax dollars and credits – after he was featured in a Gay With Kids article where he discussed his adopted son.
“You are aware that this conduct, if true, does not comport with the Seventh-day Adventist church’s standards,” he was told in an email that terminated his $49,000 a year position. “Hand over your keys. Hand over your badge. You’re not allowed on Forrest Lake property.”
Block and the ACLU have found some success litigating these firings.
Last month, a federal judge ruled that the firing of the North Carolina teacher Lonnie Billard from a Catholic school for being gay was a violation of the Civil Rights Act, shutting down the school’s attempt to argue that they had a religious exemption from the law.
“After all this time, I have a sense of relief and a sense of vindication. I wish I could have remained teaching all this time,” Billard said in a statement released by the ACLU. “Today’s decision validates that I did nothing wrong by being a gay man.”
The work of Block and the ACLU is standing on the shoulders of decades of litigation that provides civil rights legislation the legal muscle it has today. Much of this played out in public schools, particularly in the south, where segregationists like the Alabama governor, George Wallace, stood blocking the entrance of a school that black students sought to enter.
Around this time, the marketplace for private religious schools – thought to be protected from integration laws – began to explode in size.
“Hoping to keep their racial purity, their white evangelical identity, a lot of rich churches created their own schools,” said Frances Fitzgerald, author of the Pulitzer prize–winning book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. “They thought they could get away with being segregated.”
This proved not to be the case when Bob Jones University – which gave Wallace an honorary degree – found itself stripped of its tax-exempt status as a religious institution due to its ban on black students.
Forced integration and taxation of private religious schools – along with bans on teacher-led prayer in public schools – created a narrative among conservative evangelicals that a liberal government was waging war on Christianity, galvanizing them into the political force known today as the Christian right.
“Before this, they weren’t terribly organized at all,” Fitzgerald said of the previously apolitical demographic. “When Paul Weyrich went around trying to enlist evangelicals and fundamentalists into the Republican party, they didn’t respond to any of his issues other than forced integration of Christian schools.”
This laid the groundwork for the following generation of evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Tim LeHay, who partnered with the Republican party to stir up anger around issues evangelicals previously cared little about, like abortion, drugs and the rights of women and gays.
Campaigns to overturn gay rights legislation like “Save Our Children” in Florida (led by evangelical superstar Anita Bryant), or California’s Prop 6, which sought to ban gay men and lesbians from teaching in public schools, both equated homosexuality with pedophilia and accused gay teachers of being sexually motivated in their career choice.
While the villains were new, the tactic of ginning up baseless fears had been the cornerstone of white flight to Christian schools a decade earlier.
Bob Jones University’s lack of black students was rooted in its ban on interracial dating. When the university eventually integrated in 1971, it allowed only married black students to attend, and in 1975 allowed single black students but denied “admission to applicants engaged in an interracial marriage or known to advocate interracial marriage or dating”.
While openly opposing racial integration eventually became an ineffective tool for galvanizing evangelical voters – replaced by racist dog-whistles – gays integrating themselves into the American family remained a potent touchstone for the Christian right.
“In 2004, evangelical leaders were running out of money and their voters had been falling away, so they all got in a room together to decide what issues would bring their flock back to the fold, and they decided on gay marriage,” says Fitzgerald. “And so they flooded the nation with anti–gay marriage ballot measures, and that not only helped get George W Bush elected to a second term, but the ballot measures sometimes performed better than he did … They were against gay people in principle, but they also thought gay teachers were a bigger threat to kids than anything.”
Think of the children
“He was awesome– he really cared,” says Skyler Daniel, a junior at Valor Christian high school, of his former volleyball coach, Tonga.
On a chilly November evening, Daniel was joined by dozens of classmates, alumni and LGBTQ activists outside a Valor high school football game, protesting against the treatment of Tonga. Cars honked their horns as they drove by, showing support with signs that read “God Is Love” and “Every 45 seconds one queer teen attempts suicide.”
This statistic comes from the Trevor Project, an advocacy group and crisis center for LGBTQ youth struggling with suicidal ideation. While the Christian right views gay teachers as a threat to students, the Trevor Project’s research shows that “LGBTQ youth who have access to an LGBTQ-affirming school report lower rates of attempting suicide.” Yet, “only half of LGBTQ youth reported having an LGBTQ-affirming school.”
Skyler Daniel and other students and alumni are laboring to make Valor an LGBTQ-affirming school through their organization, Valor for Change. Through their Gay Straight Alliance (which has to meet off campus) and a list of demands for school leadership, the group aims to make their school a place where all students can feel safe and supported.
The Guardian reached out to Valor high school to comment on Tonga and Valor for Change, but did not receive a response.
Who’s a minister?
While 81% of Americans say gay teachers should be able to teach at elementary schools, religious schools catering to the remaining 19% have been developing a varied strategy for keeping them out of their classrooms.
“There are constitutional arguments they make, that [being forced to employ gay teachers] violates their freedom of association, free exercise of religion, but those have been rejected,” says Joshua Block of the ACLU. “One thing that hasn’t been rejected is the ‘ministerial exception’ [to discrimination laws] which is also grounded in the constitution. It says that there are certain positions that are so close to the exercise of an organization’s religious identity that the government can’t interfere with them.”
So if Valor Christian high school wanted to say that because Inoke Tonga, for example, led his students in a prayer before a volleyball game, or spoke of the holy spirit guiding them during a game, could his firing for being gay fall under a ministerial exemption from discrimination laws?
“It hasn’t been tested at that level of specificity,” says Block, “but a lot of religious organizations are trying to incorporate religious duties into the jobs of their employees to have that sort of insulation.”
Protecting religious freedom is at the core of America’s history, identity and constitution. Over the course of the 20th century, many legal battles have been waged over when the freedom of an individual or persecuted minority should trump that of a religious institution’s freedom to behave in any way their theology instructs.
There are a seemingly endless number of lines to be drawn on this issue, but for Block and the ACLU, the freedom to seek employment is essential to individual liberty.
Block said: “It is one thing to have a belief that you practice in your own religious community, but when you go out into the public market and start hiring people, you are engaging with the public at large, and you have to respect that there are a lot of people out there who deserve equal treatment, even if they don’t share your religious beliefs.”
For Ethan Stalker, the break unfolded in a now familiar way.
On March 18, 2019, Stalker announced on a blog post he was gay. The next day, he got invited to a coffee meeting with a pastor at the evangelical church in New York City where he was serving as a lay leader. The pastor told him he no longer qualified to be a small group leader.
His life choices, he was told, were not “God’s best” for him. The church allowed the 25-year-old, who works in marketing for healthcare companies, to continue to volunteer on its broadcast production team.
Three months later, Stalker quit the church.
“They loved to tell me my sexuality doesn’t define me,” Stalker said. “But they shoved a handful of verses down my throat that completely sexualize me as a gay person and put a cap on what I can do. It dismissed who I am as a complex human being. That was a huge problem for me.”
Stalker’s story is one shared by thousands of LGBTQ young people who grew up in evangelical churches that deny them full participation. LGBTQ people are typically excluded from serving on church boards and from leading worship or other church groups. They are not ordained or allowed to marry same-sex partners in the church. That’s causing many younger evangelicals — gay and straight — to question the integrity of their church’s theology and the consistency of its biblical interpretation.
Amid widespread acceptance of LGBTQ people, evangelical church attitudes toward the group have not budged, and the consequences have been dire
A study last month by the Public Religion Research Institute found the number of Americans who identify as white evangelicals has declined dramatically, from 23% in 2006 to 14.5% in 2020. Those leaving in the greatest numbers are younger evangelicals whose attitudes toward sexual minorities are starkly at odds with their elders. Take same-sex marriage: While only one-third (34%) of white evangelicals age 50 and over favor same-sex marriage, 51% of younger white evangelicals ages 18-49 now favor it — a majority, another PRRI study found.
To be sure, evangelicals, like people of all faiths, leave church for many reasons: changing politics, shifting cultural tastes, spiritual restlessness. But among younger evangelicals, the church’s attitude on sexuality is emerging as one of the big causes for the decline.
“Most people know and love someone who’s openly gay,” said Julie Rodgers, a Christian writer, activist and lesbian whose story is featured in the new documentary on Netflix, “Pray Away.” “It causes them to wrestle with the implication of teachings that say, ‘We’re bad and wrong and sinful.’ It creates a significant conflict for them in a way that (evangelical allegiance to) the Republican Party more broadly feels like an abstraction, and they don’t see the effect of that on human beings they know and love.”
In contrast with most mainline Protestant denominations where LGBTQ members are routinely ordained and their marriages solemnized in church (the United Methodist Church being the exception), white evangelical denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Anglican Church in North America and dozens of others have resisted offering gay people equality. LGBTQ people are allowed to attend church, to be baptized and in most cases to take Communion — but not much else. All three denominations doubled down on their opposition to fully affirming LGBTQ people at their annual conferences this summer.
In evangelical circles, LGBTQ equality has become the litmus test. Churches that stray from those policies risk losing their evangelical bonafides.
“If you make space for marrying or ordaining queer clergy or parishioners, you’re now decidedly out of the evangelical world,” said Michael Rudzena, pastor of Good Shepherd New York, a non-denominational church that is welcoming for LGBTQ people, many of them fleeing evangelical congregations.
One of the hallmarks of evangelicalism is its high view of Scripture. Evangelicals take the Bible to be the literal or authoritative word of God. That leads them to highlight a handful of passages that condemn gay sex.
Yet many evangelicals have found a way to embrace and minister to divorced people, even though the Bible, and Jesus, specifically, frowns on it.
“There’s some selective literalism that ignores divorce and remarriage but can’t make the adjustment on this yet,” said the Rev. Fred Harrell, pastor of City Church San Francisco, a Reformed Church in America congregation that fully affirms LGBTQ people.
City Church decided in 2015 to be a fully inclusive church. Overnight it lost 300 members. Its $5.8 million annual budget shrunk to about $2.8 million today. It laid off staff, cut other people’s salaries and had to shut down one of its campuses. Yet, Harrell said he has no regrets. About 15% of the church’s 336 members (with another 360 who attend but do not belong) identify as LGBTQ. Harrell said they’re among the most active and dedicated members.
“They’re really solid people who have been an enormous blessing to the church,” Harrell said. “I tell my non-affirming friends, ‘You’re really missing out.’”
City Church is one of a handful of churches once considered evangelical that have offered LGBTQ full inclusion. GracePointe in Nashville and EastLake Community Church in Seattle are two others that broke from the evangelical pack at the same time. The toll was steep. In the four years that followed — years that coincided with the Trump administration — few others made the move.
That’s not to say there have been no shifts on the part of evangelicals.
Conversion therapy, the discredited practice of attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity, has increasingly come under fire, as the documentary “Pray Away” reveals. At least 20 states have banned the practice among minors. Once a common approach embraced by many churches, conversion therapy has even been denounced by evangelical elites such as Russell Moore, formerly the Southern Baptist Convention’s top ethicist.
In addition, more Christian publishers — such as Convergent, HarperOne, Broadleaf and Eerdmans — are willing to publish books affirming LGBTQ Christians.
Those changes have been too little, too late for some.
Jake Dawkins, a 26-year-old software engineer from Greenville, South Carolina, who growing up attended evangelical churches, dropped out over the churches’ view on sexuality. A straight man, he lived for a while in New York City where he met lots of committed gay Christians.
“Meeting people with different viewpoints opened my mind up to what Christianity could be,” Dawkins said. “That started separating me from more traditional Christianity. That disconnect or discomfort that I felt with the church gave me the opportunity to recognize other things about the church I wasn’t a fan of.”
Jonathan Merritt, a senior columnist at Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic, who recently came out as gay, said he foresees a gradual evolution in evangelical circles.
Churches might begin treating LGBTQ people as they do divorced people, directing them to support groups and allowing them to take on service-oriented projects.
“At the end of the day, the history of evangelicalism is a history of pragmatism,” Merritt said.
Just as the churches once opposed rock music — now ubiquitous in the form of Christian rock or praise songs — so, too, evangelical resistance to LGBTQ people may soften.
The question is whether that will happen quickly enough for the people who are fed up with the homophobia still tolerated in evangelical circles.
Elliot Rossomme, a 26-year-old gay man who had been attending a nondenominational evangelical church while studying for a graduate degree in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, made the break two years ago.
He had grown up in an evangelical church in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When he got to Berkeley he noticed the church he was attending never discussed sexuality. So he proposed leading a support group for LGBTQ members. He was told he could start the group, so long as he forswore dating, promised he wouldn’t disparage the theological position of the church or advocate for other positions. (Some evangelical churches have accepted the reality of same-sex attraction but require gays to be celibate if they are to serve in leadership positions.)
“That day, I realized I couldn’t go to that church anymore,” Rossomme said.
Two years ago, he decided to try City Church San Francisco. At the end of the first service he attended, as the Eucharist, or the bread and the wine, was about to be celebrated, he said he cried.
“There was a sense that I don’t have to fight for my place at this table here, and they want me to come forward and don’t have qualms about me participating in this meal,” he said.
Here, he no longer felt like a theological outsider and could dedicate positive energy toward building a community he believes in. He joined the church
Ethan Stalker, the New York City marketer, has also found his way to a church — Good Shepherd New York, which welcomes a number of LGBTQ refugees.
But after volunteering all his life for various church projects (he was a theology major at Anderson University in South Carolina, a Christian school) and finding all his social connections through church, he’s more tentative now.
“I’m still recovering and working through the hurt and trauma I experienced being in leadership roles at churches,” Stalker said. “I’m not sure if I will ever be ready to step back into a leadership role. I’d like to think one day I will be able to, but only time will tell.”
To Christie Leonard, working at Gospel Crusade was the perfect fusion of vocation and spiritual call, where her talents and her faith could work in tandem.
“I was doing my dream job,” she said in a recent interview with Religion News Service.
Besides providing her income, Gospel Crusade, which does international mission work and runs a conference center from its Bradenton, Fla., base, had immense spiritual significance for Leonard. Her family had attended classes at Gospel Crusade’s church, and since 2000, Leonard had worshiped at the Family Church, a religious community at the conference center, called the Christian Retreat. She cites attending there as cementing her decision to become “a follower of Christ,” and her attachment only deepened when she began working at the Christian Retreat a few years later.
Which is why, she told RNS, she felt crushed when she was fired in 2019, despite giving what she said were 15 of her “best years” to the organization.
Worse, she claims her firing had nothing to do with her work ethic or her spiritual devotion, but rather rumors surrounding her sexuality and her relationship with a co-worker.
She said the firing felt as if “God was throwing me away
Leonard is now suing Gospel Crusade, claiming her termination was driven by discrimination based on her gender and presumptions about her sexual orientation. The church has disputed her account in court, but the case is one of several that could test the reach of the “ministerial exception,” a legal workaround that exempts faith groups from nondiscrimination laws in hiring and firing as long as the employees in question are considered ministers — including, according to recent Supreme Court decisions, staffers such as Leonard who are not clergy
Like many who work for small religious organizations, Leonard juggled multiple jobs at Gospel Crusade. Initially hired as an hourly employee to help with video production, she later found herself assisting the group’s accounting team as well as working in human resources. By the time she was brought on as a salaried employee in 2017, she kept a cot under her desk for late nights spent editing video.
“I basically lived there,” she said.
About the same time, Leonard began working closely with a female colleague. According to Leonard, the two were in constant conversation and over time, she said, “we became almost inseparable.”
Their connection became a flash point, professionally and personally. Leonard said her colleague’s husband “became jealous in some ways” of their relationship. Rumors began to circulate that the two women, who Leonard said were both struggling with marital difficulties, were in a “romantic relationship or a sexual relationship.”
The colleague’s husband, who served on the church’s staff, then allegedly took his concerns to the senior pastor of the Family Church at Christian Retreat, Phil Derstine, who reached out to Leonard’s husband
Leonard insisted it was only after consulting with the two husbands that Derstine allegedly met with both women — not to talk about the situation, but to announce his decision: They could not spend any time together for 30 days. If they managed that, they could both attend a planned mission trip to Uganda in September 2018
Leonard said she and her colleague did as instructed and were able to take the trip together. But at a meeting while they were away, Gospel Crusade board members allegedly heard testimony from the colleague’s husband.
When the women returned, they did not immediately go to their respective homes. According to Leonard, her colleague went to a wedding while Leonard visited family out of state.
According to Leonard, Derstine promptly fired Leonard’s colleague but allowed Leonard to remain on staff — albeit as an hourly employee instead of a salaried one, and with a caveat: She could not move in with her colleague.<
“He said, ‘I have one other condition: You cannot live with that woman,’ ” Leonard recalled, adding that he suggested she live with her brother.
This time, Leonard did not comply. The two women secretly moved in together, coinciding with what Leonard described as a campaign of harassment led by Derstine and others at Gospel Crusade.
“[Derstine] continued to ask me every single day that he called me, ‘Where are you living?’ ” she said. “I got text messages at all hours of the night asking me how my living situation was. I believe there were people that were following us. It was just a very stressful situation.”
Allegedly at Derstine’s urging, family members contacted Leonard to inquire about the living situation. A Gospel Crusade board member allegedly confronted her to say that he knew where she lived.
In early 2019, during a counseling session with Derstine’s wife, Leonard revealed a desire to live with her former colleague, noting she was now unemployed and separated from her husband.
A few hours later, Derstine convened a meeting with Leonard to inform her that she was fired.
Leonard said she was told she was fired for poor job performance. But she alleges that “I was having close to my best year” and that Derstine even asked her more than once after she was fired to assist with video production.
Instead, Leonard believes she lost her job for very different reasons. She said Derstine hinted at larger subtext during the firing meeting, when he allegedly said the mere suggestion of Leonard moving in with her female co-worker was “a dealbreaker.”
“I was fired for sex discrimination,” Leonard said. “They believed that I was in a lesbian relationship with my former co-worker.”
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agreed: That same year, they found probable cause that she had been discriminated against based on her gender, as well as the perception that she was involved in a same-sex relationship.
Gospel Crusade declined to settle, and Leonard filed her lawsuit in federal court in October 2019, with the help of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund.
“The worst part for me is that these were my spiritual leaders . . . and that somehow God was throwing me away,” Leonard said, “that he didn’t love me, or value me or my service.”
Gospel Crusade did not provide on-the-record responses to requests for comment. However, court documents show lawyers for the group repeatedly denying Leonard’s allegations, arguing that text messages and emails she supplied as evidence were taken out of context.
The court documents also feature Gospel Crusade invoking the “ministerial exception,” a focus of a landmark 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical v. EEOC.
That case featured a dispute between a school affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and a former teacher who was fired when she attempted to return to work after being diagnosed with narcolepsy. The court sided with the school, which argued that the teacher was a minister and thus exempt from nondiscrimination laws. The ruling was seen as expanding the ministerial exception to include religious workers who are not ordained clergy.
Since 2012, religious institutions have invoked the ruling to justify the firing of LGBTQ employees. In 2019, a Catholic high school in Indiana fired a gay teacher after the Archdiocese of Indianapolis threatened to strip the school of its affiliation with the church. Explaining why he believed the fired teacher’s spouse — who taught at a nearby Catholic school — should also be fired, the archbishop argued the archdiocese “recognizes all teachers, guidance counselors and administrators as ministers.”
But the ministerial exception is complicated by the Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, in which the majority argued that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which prohibits hiring discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin — also protects employees against discrimination because they are gay or transgender.
In his majority opinion, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch argued that the court is “deeply concerned with preserving the promise of the free exercise of religion enshrined in our Constitution,” and suggested that laws such as the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act might allow religious groups to avoid nondiscrimination statutes and “supersede Title VII’s commands in appropriate cases.”
The arrival of Justice Amy Coney Barrett has potentially tipped the balance of the court toward a more conservative understanding of religious liberty and the exception.
Cases such as Leonard’s may be used to reconcile the Tabor and Bostock rulings. “If [religious] organizations are allowed to simply do whatever they want to when it comes to employment,” said Kevin Sanderson, Leonard’s attorney, “and aren’t held to the same standards as other employers despite what our laws say, you could have millions of people who are really unprotected in the workplace.”
Leonard remains concerned about others who could face her same situation. “What scares me a little bit is the idea that this ministerial exception — that they’ve now decided I’m a minister — has a growing reach to affect more people,” she said. “Because [Derstine] would say every believer is a leader.”
She also expressed deep frustration with what she described as the church’s patriarchal bent. “Somehow, a room full of these guys get together, say they speak for God and get to treat people however they want?”
The whole ordeal has frayed relationships with friends and family and taken a toll on her faith, but Leonard managed to find a new religious home. She now attends an Episcopal Church, where she says she feels supported and where the priest appears to be “completely different” than the “businessman” she said she worked for at Gospel Crusade.
She also takes comfort in the Episcopal Church’s long-standing support for LGBTQ rights: Should a situation like what happened at Gospel Crusade arise at her new church, she feels more protected.
A lesbian professor at a Catholic university was targeted by a man who handed out photos of her family on campus in an attempt to get her fired.
The man was protesting the employment of Dr. Kelly Wilson, a professor in the theology department at the University of St. Thomas, a private, Roman Catholic university in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minn.
The photos distributed by the man, who hasn’t been identified, showed Wilson with her family and children.
But his plan backfired after the university rallied behind Wilson and said it rejected the man’s “hateful message,” KARE 11 reports.
Wilson said that in seven years her sexuality had never “come up” while working at St. Thomas.
“This isn’t new to me that I would get some pushback from some people I just never know or knew it would include a picture of my kids as evidence of why I should be fired,” Wilson said.
She learned of the protest after campus security called her to report the man adding that security was
concerned that “this was the first time he has targeted an individual and used a picture of their family.”
Wilson said that she received support from across the campus, including students, faculty, and leaders.
In a statement, the University of St. Thomas affirmed its support of Wilson and said that the man was banned from the school’s campus.
“This man has a history of criticizing St. Thomas employees. He is not allowed on campus, but we are limited in how we can respond to him when he is on public property. When we found out about this latest incident, we reached out to offer our full support to Dr. Wilson,” they said.
“We also sent a university-wide communication rejecting this man’s hateful message and reaffirming our commitment to an inclusive environment for our LGBTQA+ community members. This is consistent with Catholic teaching, which calls on us to love and care for every person. As Pope Francis reminds us, ‘God has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity.’”
In addition to support from colleagues, Wilson used publicity from the man’s protest to raise funds for Dignity Twin Cities, an LGBTQ Catholic organization.
“I just thought the best way to respond to someone like this is to support those systems that he’s trying to break down,” she said.
Wilson added: “You don’t have pick being gay or Catholic, it’s not either or moments or decisions what it is I believe I am being my authentic self, I believe that is what my church asks me to do what the scriptures ask me to do and what God expects of me, and this is my home is the Catholic Church.”
As well as raising funds. Wilson and a colleague also extended an invitation to Father James Martin — a Jesuit priest, New York Times bestselling author, and advocate for greater LGBTQ outreach by the Church — to come and speak to LGBTQ Catholics at St. Thomas.
Martin accepted, telling KARE 11 that the Church “teaches that LGBT people are to be treated with respect, compassion and sensitivity.”
He also slammed the man who protested Wilson’s employment at a Catholic university, calling it “cruel” to have passed out images of Wilson’s children.
“That is certainly something not part of Catholic teaching, not part of the Christian world and not what Jesus asked us to do,” he said. “Sometimes I like to say that these people are so Catholic, these protestors, that they forget about being Christian.”