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Religious Liberty vs. LGBT Rights: How the Church Is Missing the Point, Ignoring the Gospel, and Losing a Generation

03/27/2015 04:56 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015

Earlier today a bill was signed into law in Indiana that will allow business owners to deny services to LGBT people based on religious objections. This comes on the heels of legislation enacted in Arkansas last month that prohibits local communities from implementing non-discrimination policies for LGBT people. Lawmakers in my home state of West Virginia went so far as to block a popular taxi service from doing business in the state because of opposition to a non-discrimination clause, presumably to preserve the right of a cab driver to refuse service to gays and lesbians.

While marriage equality has expanded to 37 states in recent years, a backlash against gay rights is occurring across the country with at least 26 states introducing bills that would legalize discrimination against the LGBT community. At the forefront of these efforts are a number of evangelical churches and organizations, which are concerned that traditional views on marriage and sexuality are being threatened by broader cultural acceptance of LGBT rights. Many church leaders are advancing the notion that Christians will be penalized for adhering to traditional beliefs and therefore must be protected by robust religious liberty laws.

As a gay man who was raised in the evangelical church, I would be the first to admit that the legal and theological implications of these issues are quite complex. Despite my own disagreement with conservative views on same-sex relationships, it's undeniable that those perspectives represent a longstanding and deeply held theology that in some contexts is safeguarded by the First Amendment. For example, under no circumstances should churches or other expressly religious institutions be coerced to perform weddings that contradict stated doctrinal beliefs. The LGBT community should be careful not to dismiss these concerns or erode these protections.

However, the insistence on the part of some Christians to expand religious exemptions to the broadest set of circumstances reflects a grave lack of understanding or disregard for the real life challenges faced by LGBT people. Worse yet, these political tactics are sending a damaging message to the gay community, not to mention their friends and family, about the culture and priorities of the modern evangelical church. With all of the effort currently being expended on religious liberty legislation, one might assume that a central tenet of the faith is ensuring that no Christian ever has to offer employment, rent a house or even bake a cake for a gay person.

I'm often asked by well-meaning fellow Christians how they can better demonstrate love toward LGBT people even if they can't affirm same-sex relationships. My response is that the church needs to start defending the basic dignity of all people, including those with whom they disagree.

I have no expectation that conservative evangelical denominations are going to dramatically change their position on gay marriage any time soon; however, the church is failing to separate key theological issues from other basic legal protections that should be afforded to everyone. For instance, I shouldn't have to worry when I walk into a restaurant if the kitchen will serve me just because I'm dining with my boyfriend, or when I'm apartment hunting if I'll be denied housing because I'm gay. Regrettably, Christians are gaining an undesirable reputation, not as defenders of religious liberty, but as enemies of LGBT people who are ushering in a new era of segregationist policies in the name of Christ.

In some instances such as in Indiana and Arkansas, anti-LGBT political tactics are clearly succeeding. But no one seems to be considering the toll this is actually taking on the church itself, a disastrous example of winning the battle but losing the war. Younger Americans are increasingly abandoning organized religion with one-third of Millennials citing the church's treatment of LGBT people as a key reason for their departure. They find it too difficult to participate in a culture that is actively making life worse for LGBT friends and family. For those of us who are concerned about the health of the church and the relevance of our faith to a new generation, this is a troubling trend.

Perhaps the saddest thing to me is that all of this anti-LGBT fervor actually runs contrary to the life and teachings of Christ. One of the central themes of the Gospels is the way in which Jesus spent His time ministering to the marginalized - lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors and foreigners. If you fast-forward to contemporary times and think about groups of people that are considered outsiders today, that's exactly where Christ would focus his time, energy and affection.

A dear friend and pastor once tried to convince me that Jesus, who was a carpenter by trade, probably wouldn't build a table for a gay or lesbian couple. But as I look at scripture, I'm quite certain that Jesus would not only build the table, He would sit down at it and share a meal too.

Quite simply, it's time for the church to follow Christ's example by looking past the politics and the doctrine to see the dignity, humanity and immense needs of real people.

You ask how Christians, even from non-affirming denominations, can better demonstrate love to the LGBT community? -- By helping to ensure that we have access to a job and a roof over our head. By joining with us to prevent bullying and end LGBT youth homelessness. By speaking out against government sanctioned violence in places like Uganda and Nigeria where LGBT people face imprisonment or even the death penalty. These actions don't compromise Christian values. They embody them.

Otherwise, we might consider rewriting Matthew 25 to sound more like this:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat... (except for gay people).
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink... (except for gay people).
I was a stranger and you invited me in... (except for gay people).
I needed clothes and you clothed me... (except for gay people).
I was sick and you looked after me... (except for gay people).
I was in prison and you came to visit me... (except for gay people).

If Christians can't work to safeguard LGBT people from bullying, physical attacks and other forms of discrimination, I'm afraid we've traded the authentic gospel of Jesus for a form of cultural Christianity that is devoid of grace and compassion at a time when the world is desperately in need of both. I fear we will gain a handful of religious liberty laws but lose our soul.