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Rev. Debra Haffner Headshot

Will Clergy Lead the Way on LGBT Equality?

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Despite recent advances for marriage equality for same-sex couples in New England and Iowa, public support still wavers. The latest poll from Quinnipiac University indicates that only a third of Americans believe that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. An ABC News-Washington Post poll registered stronger support for marriage equality (49%), but more than half of the country continues to endorse the federal law allowing states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

While long-term trends clearly favor equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans, we must continue to shift public sentiment and public policy in a progressive direction. And I am hoping your local clergy will lead the way.

This may surprise you, but your local minister or rabbi may well be ahead of the curve when it comes to LGBT advocacy. The same day the Quinnipiac poll was released, two other reports - one by the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, the other by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Institute for Welcoming Resources - depicted the depth of LGBT-affirming ministries and activism among clergy in mainline Protestant, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist congregations.

These two reports revealed that LGBT equality is the primary focus of social justice activism in progressive congregations. At the same time, they indicated that congregations that take intentional action to embrace LGBT congregants also tend to be more active in environmentalism, reproductive justice, anti-poverty efforts and other social concerns. And they refuted the myth that welcoming LGBT persons and their families into the congregation creates divisions or drives other congregants away.

In short, these progressive congregations are demonstrating how the entire faith community benefits from the full embrace of LGBT equality. It's a lesson the wider American community should listen to, and learn from. And clergy are in a unique position to deliver the message.

The Survey of Religious Progressives, published this week by the Religious Institute, reported near-unanimous support for LGBT inclusion and equality among progressive clergy, including marriage equality, adoption rights, ordination and employment nondiscrimination. This support, however, does not always translate into action. Four in 10 of the clergy surveyed said they had not preached on sexual orientation issues in the last two years; nearly half had not been active in their denominational work on LGBT concerns; and only a third of their congregations had organized for LGBT rights or offered study groups on LGBT issues.

Moreover, while most of the clergy are attentive to gay and lesbian adults in their congregations, the needs of transgender persons, bisexuals, queer and questioning youth, and LGBT families are too often underserved. Fewer than one quarter of the congregations served by progressive clergy offer sexuality education programs, support groups for families with LGBT members, or programs for LGBT teens. So while much good work is underway in progressive congregations, there is more work still to do.

Clergy and faith communities have long led movements for social justice in America. Clergy can help congregants explore the issues of faith, sexuality, marriage, family and social justice. They can invite LGBT people and their families to share their stories and their lives, and begin to wear down the fear and anxiety that often impede social change. The Quinnipiac University poll demonstrates that support for full inclusion is much higher among people who know someone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Sharing the pew with openly LGBT congregants will surely make a difference.

We know too well the voice of religious intolerance in this country. This is the moment for another voice to emerge. It is time for progressive clergy to move from support of LGBT equality to assertive advocacy in their congregations and the public square. It is time to preach, teach and lead.

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