Religious freedom doesn't excuse discrimination

The budget crisis has people in a state of anxiety. Domestic abuse continues to stain the fabric of our society. Substance abuse destroys lives drink by drink, pill by pill, dose by dose. We have urgent problems requiring our full attention.

So it is harmful to Alaska that anti-equality groups are diverting energy and attention with an effort to legalize discrimination. In recent weeks, amendments have been announced that seek to undermine the basic fairness present in the Anchorage nondiscrimination ordinance, which has worked well for the past six months. These amendments, falsely using the guise of religious freedom, are designed to marginalize the LGBTQ community, but they open a can of worms that will cause broader damage. A pharmacist could deny birth control to whomever he deems unfit. A restaurant could refuse to seat a biracial couple. A realtor could refuse to sell a home to an interfaith couple, needing only to invoke their "strongly held religious beliefs."

Similar legislation passed in Mississippi and North Carolina has caused these states to receive national derision, as well as the economic pain that comes with legalizing discrimination -- a risk Anchorage cannot afford to take in these desperate economic times. PayPal, Disney, Apple, Coca-Cola and others are among the hundreds of companies poised to end doing business in these states. Several major cities are prohibiting employees from traveling to states that are trampling people's basic civil rights.

This is because "strongly held religious beliefs" do not trump civil rights, and if a business is to be open to the public, it must be open to all of the public -- even those who have a different gender and race than the owners -- and yes, even to those who have different "strongly held religious beliefs." That is the true nature of religious freedom: It means that we not only live together in the same society, but we actively serve one another, care for one another and love one another. It does not mean that we seize the opportunity to exclude one another and marginalize families that look different from our own.

Religious freedom is a pillar of our nation, designed not only to protect the government from being nudged toward theocracy by radicalized groups, but also to protect the individual from having religion imposed upon them by the government. It is a boundary that is at the same time strong and flexible, adapting to our society's needs as the times change. It is one of the most important principles we have, which is why we must stand up against the term being misused.

Alaskans must carefully reflect and pray about what best serves the needs of families in our community: Is it championing a divisive, unnecessary measure that undermines our economy as well as our basic values of compassion and equality? Or would advocating for paid family leave, fighting child abuse, preventing sexual assault, housing the homeless and supporting victims of domestic abuse be better ways to express our Christian values and love of all families?

To learn more about the effort to protect Anchorage's nondiscrimination ordinance, visit www.fairanchorage.org.

Rev. Matt Schultz is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Anchorage. Rev. Michael Burke is rector at St. Mary's Episcopal church in Anchorage.

Editors' note: Co-signers to the preceding commentary are Nora Ortiz Fredrick, Ascent Alaska U.M.C.; Candace K. Bell, Steering Committee, Christians for Equality; Rev. Julia Seymour, Lutheran Church of Hope; Rev. Nico Romijn-Stout, St. John United Methodist Church; Rev. Ellen Johnson-Price, Immanuel Presbyterian Church; Rev. Max Lopez-Cepero, First Evangelical Covenant Church; Pastor David Sutton, God's Mission House; The Rev. Andrew J. Bartel, St. John United Methodist Church; Bonnie Bladow, Lutheran Church of Hope; Phylis Rude, Lutheran Church of Hope; Rev. Shelley Wickstrom, Bishop, Alaska Synod ELCA; Fran Talbott, St. Mary's Episcopal Church; Kay Gajewski, St. Anthony's Catholic Parish; and Carol Waters, F.I.S.H.

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