Last week, The Gallup Poll reported that support for gay rights is at its highest point in three decades, and New Hampshire became the latest state to allow civil unions for same sex couples. Nearly 90 percent of Americans believe that gay people should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities, 60 percent of people believe that same-sex relations should be legal, 57 percent believes that homosexuality should be considered "acceptable", and support for marriage for same sex couples has risen to 46 percent from 27 percent a decade ago. Support for gay and lesbians is highest among those who understand the science that sexual orientation is innate and those who attend church "nearly weekly/monthly" or who attend less often or never.
However, support is considerably lower among people who report weekly attendance at worship services. Many of the countries mainstream religious denominations continue to be roiled by controversies around the ordination of gay and lesbian persons and performing marriages for same sex couples, and the country's two largest denominations, the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Association, continue to condemn same sex sexual behaviors and committed relationships.
However, an increasing number of religious leaders and religious institutions now recognize that people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities are assets to faith communities and society and not problems to be solved. At least ten denominations ordain openly gay and lesbian clergy persons, at least five have ordained transgender clergy, and nearly a dozen permit their clergy to officiate at civil unions or marriages of same sex couples. Most denominations—from the Baptists to the Mormons to Roman Catholics to mainstream Protestants—have either officially affiliated organizations or independent organizations that are working for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons (LGBT) in the life of the faith community.
On June 4, 2007, the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing issued an Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Sexual and Gender Diversity (PDF) that challenges religious leaders to use the pulpit to address the complex realities of sexual and gender diversity and to advocate in secular and faith-based contexts for justice and the full inclusion of LGBT people.
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Created by a coalition of theologians from Jewish, Christian, and Catholic backgrounds, the Open Letter laments the damage done to gay, lesbian, and transgender people by the silence or, worse, open condemnation of religious leaders. The Open Letter says, "Some have mistakenly called homosexuality sinful when the real issue is heterosexism or the unjust privileging of heterosexuality. Heterosexism devalues gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, just as sexism and male privilege devalue women." Religious condemnation and ignorance has fueled violence and discrimination against LGBT people and led to despair and even suicides within the LGBT community. The Open Letter forcefully states that "sexual and gender oppression can no longer be portrayed as virtuous and morally defensible" and that "using the Bible to exclude or attack people violates the very spirit of our traditions and is morally unconscionable."
The Open Letter urges religious leaders to take action to address the needs of LGBT congregants and their families. It calls on clergy to educate themselves and their faith communities on the diversity of human sexualities and gender identities. It asks religious leaders to assure that they have the training to address the pastoral needs of congregants on issues related to sexual and gender diversity, such as the birth of an intersexed child, the coming-out process of a youth or adult, or an individual who is transitioning genders. It calls on clergy to use the pulpit and public podium to acknowledge the complex realities of personal experience and to condemn discrimination and violence against LGBT persons. It asks religious leaders to work within their own denominations and multi-faith organizations for sexual justice and the full social and legal inclusion of LGBT persons, including marriage equality.
Throughout June, cities around the country will be celebrating Pride Days to highlight the contributions of LGBT persons, and many congregations from a range of denominations will be holding Pride Worship services to affirm diverse sexual orientations and gender identities as part of God's blessing. More religious leaders must become involved in publicly speaking out for the rights of LGBT persons—to live and love with dignity and respect in a world that understands that our sexual diversity is part of God's intention for us. Support for LGBT persons is higher now than ever before—but religious leaders who understand and articulate that sexual justice is an essential part of social justice can help people of faith and good will understand that the promise of "liberty and justice" must extend to everyone.