For Holy Week, the Kansas Legislature debates “religious freedom”

It’s time once again for that annual Christian ritual: a “religious freedom” “debate” in the Kansas Legislature.

This session it’s been around adoption: whether the state can contract with faith-based agencies even though they refuse to place kids with same-sex parents because it would violate their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

The arguments, which aren’t over, have been contentious. Senator Barbara Bollier, a Republican from the wealthy Kansas City suburb of Mission Hills said the legislation would send the state “down a path to theocracy.”

Supposed threats to conservative Christians’ “religious freedom” have escalated as LGBTQ people have secured more equal rights – as in, the same access to the public accommodations, the same access to public services and the same coverage under public laws as straight, cisgender people have.

Priest at religious freedom rally Kansas Capitol Febrary 17 2016
A scene from a religious freedom rally at the Kansas Capitol in February 2016.

I’ve sat in the Kansas Statehouse for years now, listening to self-proclaimed Christians and attorneys from their national organizations clutch their breasts and speak in anguished voices about the government forcing good, decent people to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

At the end of one such hearing a couple of weeks ago, a state senator sounded a bit exasperated when he asked, “What does ‘sincerely held religious belief’ even mean?”

It was Senator Lynn Rogers, a Democrat from Wichita. His question was essentially rhetorical, since the testimony was over, so we’ll probably never get to enjoy a hearing on that topic.

Given the fact that I’ve only heard the phrase in contexts where people are arguing that my basic rights are somehow a threat to them, I find the phrase suspicious – especially when decades of “family values” rhetoric has landed us with a president who forces Evangelicals to rationalize their support with absurd mental contortions. But that’s just me.

“What I was trying to get at was: My sincerely held religious belief or anybody’s could be totally different from somebody else’s,” Rogers told me over a speaker phone from his car a few days later. (He also wrote at length about his vote on Facebook.)

Rogers said he was a Christian, too.

“I go back to some of the thinking on denomination fights,” he said. “Folks didn’t think highly of Baptists. And it hasn’t been that many years since people weren’t too wild about Catholics, and if I didn’t like Catholics, I could discriminate. I remember some of those battles.”

Kansas Sen. Lynn Rogers from Facebook
Kansas Senator Lynn Rogers, Democrat from Wichita.

“The way they talk about ‘sincerely held religious beliefs,’ they’re using religion as a sword,” added his wife, Kris Rogers, who was riding in the car with him. “And you always go wrong there.”

“Sometimes the loudest people who claim to be Christians in the Capitol are the most bigoted people we have,” Lynn Rogers went on. “The way they live their life privately is so totally different from their public persona. I know they hate people, but they won’t say it that way – they’ll couch it in religious terms, focusing on the hate or the ‘anti-’ as opposed to the love portion of our Bible. That is a struggle for me.”

While I was reporting for No Place Like Home, the person I met who most embodied what I understand to be the spirit of Christianity was Stephanie Mott, whose journey to living authentically involved finding God in a gay church in Topeka and being born again as literally as is humanly possible.

In the spirit of this holiday, I turned to Mott’s words to cleanse my soul from the messages coming out of the Kansas Statehouse.

Stephanie Mott with her car
Stephanie Mott has spent years driving around the state of Kansas in her “Equality Car.” Among its bumper stickers is the one proclaiming its driver is “Transgender and Christian.”

“While I was trying to be someone other than who I was, I was in wrong relationship with God. Go figure,” she wrote in a 2014 HuffPost blog entry titled Transgender in Right Relationship with God. “Living authentically might actually be one of the ways in which I can begin to be in right relationship with God.”

Mott cites Matthew 25: 31-46, which includes the famous passage: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in….”

I’m no expert, but it seems like the Kansas Christians who are trying to “protect” kids who need foster families might have forgotten that passage.

In another entry, 2014’s Claiming My Religious Right, Mott writes:

“It seems strange to me that the Creator of the universe would be so vain as to require that someone must believe before they are worthy of unconditional love. Not to put too fine a point on it, but adding the requirement of believing in God in order to qualify for unconditional love kind of negates the unconditional part.”

“It is my right to believe in unconditional love. Why is it that we are so eager to put conditions on God’s unconditional love? You have to be straight. You can’t be transgender. You have to be Christian. You have to believe. No! Not! None of these things! You just have to be. All that is required to receive God’s love is to be. And if God loves you as you are, so should I.”

I’m not an adherent of any organized religion. (I have a spiritual practice, but that’s nobody else’s business.) As such, simply moving through American society forces me to participate in daily violations of my sincerely held religious beliefs.

I carry cash proclaiming in God I trust. City council meetings in my town open with prayers; elected officials throughout my country hold prayer breakfasts. On my short drive to work, I pass four churches; driving for more than 15 minutes in any direction I see many more, often with messages for me on their signs. For three months at the end of every year I’m crushed by a season that, despite its heathen commercialization, has inescapable Christian underpinnings. Something similar happens this time of year, though — because it’s less easy to monetize — it’s mercifully shorter. Every day, I conduct polite social or business transactions with people wearing crosses.

The first time I heard someone argue in a public hearing that “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” was in the early 1980s, and I’ve heard it government buildings ever since. Given historic attitudes about LGBTQ people, it’s safe to estimate I’ve spent much of my adult life purchasing goods and services from people who’re certain I’ll end up in hell.

Enduring all of that isn’t really so hard. Yes, it’s annoying; yes, it sometimes presents serious moral conflicts. But I always understood such forbearance was a small price to pay for living in a pluralistic, relatively free society.

Perhaps, like white people unaware of their privilege, Christians who are worried about being forced to violate their “sincerely held religious beliefs” don’t realize how thoroughly those beliefs permeate civic life in the United States, forcing the rest of us to violate ours on a daily basis.

More likely, it seems they don’t care. More likely, it seems, “our sincerely held religious beliefs” is just another way of saying “the political power we’re used to enjoying.”

On this, their holiest of days, may they find peace in the awesomeness of their God’s diverse creation.

C.J. Janovy is the author of No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas. Follow her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

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