A few Saturday's ago, my husband and I spent our afternoon in the fellowship hall of St. Luke's Community Church. As Christians, it's not uncommon for us to spend part of our weekends gathered with people at a place of worship. What was different about this church gathering was that we didn't read the Bible, sing hymns or talk about God. Instead, we read a handout detailing the next step for passing bill 2012-296, the addendum to Jacksonville, Fla.'s Human Rights Ordinance that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.
The meeting was emotional. Everyone was frustrated, but working to retain hope after being dealt setback after setback. Despite the bill being introduced in May, then discussed in multiple City Council meetings over the past two months, the members have not yet voted. Worse, the bill was quietly removed from agenda at the latest City Council meeting last Tuesday, meaning the discussion is now moved into committees, away from the public. It appears the community is no longer able to voice their support or opposition.
While many local and worldwide leaders have voiced their support, including former mayor John Delaney and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, our current Democratic mayor Alvin Brown has stayed mostly silent on the issue.
At the church meeting, the community leaders talked about staying strong in the face of the verbal attacks hurled from the opposition. Often times these insults and prejudices come from Jacksonville citizens, but sometimes they come from the Council Members themselves. Members like Councilwoman Kimberly Daniels, who publicly asked on the record, "sexual orientation ... could it be orientated to, other types, like animals?"
Statements like that are why I don't blame some people for their anger over the city's inability to pass the bill. People like the man sitting near my husband and I in the fellowship hall. "It's 2012" he said, "Why are we still letting them treat us like second class citizens? We should be in the streets!" His anger was directed at the Jacksonville churches and conservative religious community, who have been the strongest opponents of the bill. "It's not a religious issue" someone else said, "it's an economic one." Quietly, I thought to myself, I disagree.
To me, this is undoubtedly a religious, Christian issue. As a self-proclaimed follower of Christ, I have tried my hardest to adhere the teachings of Jesus. From my reading of Scripture, there is little doubt in my mind what side He would take for this issue.
He would stand with the persecuted.
In parable after parable, Jesus is shown to care about the people who all others have given up on. He hung out with the tax collectors, publicly acknowledged women and children (which no men at the time did), and treated the homeless, sick and elderly with respect. He surrounded himself with people who had been hurt by the pompous religious elite, the Pharisees.
In Jacksonville, the people who are abhorred by the religious Pharisees of today are the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals that this bill legally protects.
These modern day Pharisees claim this an issue of "legalizing a sinful lifestyle," failing to acknowledge that what two consenting adults do behind their doors should be none of their (or the governments) business. This is not about "lifestyle" at all. It's about blatant discrimination and legal prejudice, that they are hideously using Jesus as a reason to uphold.
Thanks to the wisdom of our forefathers, sin should have nothing to do with our laws. That's what the separation of church and state is for, and that's why religion is not only a terrible reason to allow legal prejudice, but an invalid one as well.
So why should I as a Christian be concerned with changing this, or any law, if other religious people can't use Jesus as a justification for policing their morality?
Because unlike the Jacksonville conservative religious community, LGBT residents are not trying to force their beliefs on anyone. All they're asking for is a city where they can work, live and be treated with dignity.
If I've learned anything from the Bible, it's that what Jesus was most concerned with was people. Treating ALL people with love, kindness and respect, and teaching his followers to do the same. Knowing that, I cannot stay silent while others are trying to use Jesus as a justification for their prejudice.
Thankfully, I am not the only Christian in Jacksonville who feels this way. A group of pastors and religious leaders has come together to urge the City Council to pass the bill. Hopefully their voices will have an impact on those members of the Council who are using their faith as a justification to discriminate. Maybe if more Christians, locally and elsewhere, would add their voices to this debate the bill would have a better chance of passing.
Like Jesus and many of his followers, I hate injustice. Because of that, I will not stop fighting with my LGBT brothers and sisters until this bill is passed, and Jacksonville joins the 160 other cities that offer legal protections for the community that I love and respect.