I recently attended the panel discussion about a possible LGBTQ ordinance in Denton and found myself in what I imagine to be the rather unusual position of agreeing and disagreeing with almost everyone on the panel.
I came as a heterosexual pastor of an inclusive congregation and as someone who has proudly performed several same-sex weddings.
I wore a rainbow stole to the panel as a symbol of both my ordination and of my personal support for the LGBTQ community.
I think Denton should have an ordinance. Much of the panel discussion centered on the possible legal and economic impact of such an ordinance. These impacts are important and should be considered. They do not, however, get to the heart of the matter. This is fundamentally a question of civic identity: What kind of city are we and what kind of city do we aspire to be? Passing an ordinance sends a message to the LGBTQ community, their allies and everyone else that they are welcome here, that they have equal value. The value of such a message cannot be quantified or measured. Whether an ordinance would prevent or address one case of discrimination, or 50, it nevertheless sends the message that the LGBTQ community is not alone. We as a city stand with them. We have their back.
Where I disagreed with most of the pro-ordinance speakers on the panel was in their expressed support for making such an ordinance apply to churches or other faith communities. This is a step too far. This is not to say that I support discrimination even in churches. It is to say, however, that it is not the place of the government to mandate that a church violate its core beliefs in hiring its own pastoral leadership.
That would set a dangerous precedent. I am not a lawyer, but it would also most likely be unconstitutional. From what I can gather, courts have consistently ruled that the government has no business telling faith communities who they can or cannot hire for their own pastoral leadership. Faith communities, the courts have found, have a right to discriminate based on their beliefs — this is known as the “ministerial exception.” How far this extends is unclear — to quote the Pew Research Center’s summary of the issue, “All courts agree that the exception covers ordained members of the clergy who are performing tasks ordinarily associated with that role. Courts also agree that employees who have exclusively secular functions, such as bookkeeping or maintenance, do not fall within the ministerial exception.”
In any case, what purpose would it serve to subject churches to such an ordinance? It would needlessly antagonize those faith communities who sincerely (if wrongly, in my opinion) oppose homosexuality on religious grounds. Denton already has numerous congregations that are welcoming and affirming to the LGBTQ community.
It does not have to be all or nothing — nor should it. Other cities (Dallas, for example) have ordinances that affirm and protect the LGBTQ community without intruding into church governance. Denton should adopt something similar. In this I speak not only for myself, but for Trinity Presbyterian Church.