S5, Ep. 29: LGBTQ rights and religious freedom

Guest co-host Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons joins Holly Hollman for a wide-ranging conversaton on the intersection of LGBTQ rights and religious freedom advocacy.

May 16, 2024

LGBTQ rights and religious freedom are often pitted against one another, but they are not mutually exclusive. This episode of Respecting Religion looks at the recent decision by the United Methodist Church to repeal its ban on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings as well as the broader conversation. Holly Hollman is joined by guest co-host Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, BJC Communications Director. He shares some of his personal story, then he and Holly reflect on work bridging differences between LGBTQ rights advocacy and religious groups that oppose LGBTQ protections. They highlight the Respect for Marriage Act as one hallmark of bipartisan consensus building that achieves civil rights protections and safeguards religious liberty. 

Segment 1 (starting at 1:23): The changing landscape of LGBTQ rights and religious freedom

Learn more about Guthrie Graves-Fitzimmons in his BJC bio.

Find more resources on religious liberty and the LGBTQ community on BJC’s website

For in-depth information about public opinion on LGBTQ rights among different religious groups, visit the Public Religion Research Institute’s website at this link.  


Segment 2 (starting at 5:20): The United Methodist Church lifts ban on LGBTQ clergy

Read coverage from Ruth Graham of The New York Times: United Methodist Church Reverses Ban on Practicing Gay Clergy

Read Guthrie’s MSNBC column: “Why United Methodists’ historic vote means so much to gay Christians like me.”


Segment 3 (starting 16:33): Bridging differences 

Holly and Guthrie discussed the 2020 Brookings Institution report “A Time to Heal, A Time to Build,” by E.J. Dionne Jr. and Melissa Rogers. 

Respecting Religion has devoted several episodes to the topics discussed in this episode. Listen to Season 4, Episode 7 for more on the Respect for Marriage Act, Season 4, Episode 26 for more on 303 Creative v. Elenis, and Season 1, Episode 17 for more on Bostock v. Clayton County.  

Read more about BJC’s reaction to the Obergefell decision in 2015 in this column from Holly Hollman: Obergefell decision does not remove the separation of church and state. You can also access a 2-page resource with frequently asked questions about the decision.

Respecting Religion is made possible by BJC’s generous donors. You can support these conversations with a gift to BJC.

Transcript: Season 5, Episode 29: LGBTQ rights and religious freedom (some parts of this transcript have been edited for clarity)   

GUTHRIE: So that raises all these interesting questions about the role of clergy, which we can all agree on, and then all these other questions about a baker, a florist, a photographer.


Segment 1: The changing landscape of LGBTQ rights and religious freedom (starting at 00:23)

HOLLY: Welcome to Respecting Religion, a BJC podcast series where we look at religion, the law, and what’s at stake for faith freedom today. I’m Holly Hollman, general counsel of BJC.

GUTHRIE GRAVES-FITZSIMMONS: And I’m communications director Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, sitting in for our executive director, Amanda Tyler.

HOLLY: Welcome to the podcast, Guthrie. It’s so good to have you here with me and working on this side, the recording side of Respecting Religion. You often contribute in other ways, but it’s great to have you here in the room with me.

GUTHRIE: Thank you, Holly. I’m so glad to be here, sitting at the table with you and happy to discuss religious freedom and LGBTQ rights. It’s a topic close to my heart and my own lived experience and one that we’ve spent a lot of time discussing since I started working at BJC two years ago.

HOLLY: Yeah. And I really appreciate that, Guthrie. I appreciate the way that you work with me as we talk about this issue and the way that you’ve also shared so much with me.

So, Guthrie, you know, our mission at BJC, advancing religious freedom for all, has really led up to a lot of conversations about the state of LGBTQ rights across the country in different contexts for a number of reasons, and I think we’ll just kind of review some of those together.

For one, there have been so many policy and cultural advances for LGBTQ people in the past 20 years, and at the same time, we know that opposition to these advances is often rooted in religious doctrine, so the subject is out there.

And we’ve also seen an unfortunate backlash to LGBTQ rights in the past few years, and that sometimes leads to an expanded conversation about religious exemptions from LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections.

GUTHRIE: That’s right, Holly. And many religious groups, we know, are struggling with their own doctrine and history. At the same time, we are debating civil rights laws that apply to all Americans, and we know from public opinion polling that the majority of the American people accept same-sex marriage and broad LGBTQ rights.

HOLLY: Many churches and religious organizations we’ve seen change the way they once viewed LGBTQ rights, becoming much more accepting and in many cases, advocating for civil rights protections in the law.

But we also see a firm attachment in some religions to continued opposition to same-sex marriage, and that leads some to think that LGBTQ rights, you know, present a religious freedom conflict. That’s just part of the public conversation.

GUTHRIE: It is. That’s the reality. And through all of these debates that we just went over, we believe that it’s possible, our dream is possible of upholding religious freedom and treating LGBTQ Americans equally under the law.

HOLLY: That’s right.

GUTHRIE: We also know that nondiscrimination laws that have been expanded in recent years to protect people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity are a critical tool in protecting religious freedom. We know that because most nondiscrimination laws also list religion as a protected class.

HOLLY: That’s right. Protecting against nondiscrimination is not new, and it’s important that we understand that, understand how it works and how it works in different contexts.

GUTHRIE: And there’s always been an interplay between nondiscrimination protections and religious freedom. And so that debate, as well, is not new. But from a broader perspective, the really goal and mission here is that all Americans should be equal under the law, no matter how they choose to practice their faith, worship God, who they love, or who they are.

Protecting LGBTQ rights and religious freedom is not a zero-sum game. There are a few narrow ways in which religious freedom and LGBTQ freedom come into conflict, but we think that there are often workable solutions that protect the autonomy of religious institutions and protect civil rights.

HOLLY: Of course, there are some specific contexts that are more difficult, that have to be worked out. Among those with different religious beliefs and practices and nonreligious groups, you know, we can have respectful differences. We do this — we try to do this all the time in our diverse, multi-cultural, multi-religious democracy. And BJC works for religious freedom for all.



Segment 2: The United Methodist Church lifts ban on LGBTQ clergy (starting at 5:20)

HOLLY: Beyond what’s happening in various legal contexts across the country, Guthrie, where these conversations happen at a policy level, there was important news recently coming out of the United Methodist Church denomination, officially changing some of their positions.

GUTHRIE: That’s right, Holly. The nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination, the United Methodist Church, had a major change that was decades in the works. Here’s how The New York Times national religion correspondent Ruth Graham described the news: “United Methodist Church removed its longstanding ban on ordaining gay clergy, formalizing a shift in policy that had already begun in practice and that had prompted the departure of a quarter of its U.S. congregations in recent years.”

HOLLY: So that was pretty big news that they made this shift. And that’s significant for a denomination that’s really known for its social outreach, its social ministries, its voice being out in the world, so it’s a pretty major development.

And, you know, our listeners know something about the variety of religion that BJC often acknowledges. We come to this work out of a specific appreciation for our Baptist forebears and the religious freedom that they fought for, and so are often informed by that Baptist tradition, which is also known for its varieties, very different strands, a lot of emphasis on the local church and voluntary associations.

But, of course, we work with various denominations as well as all other religions and people outside of religious practice. And here we’re talking about within Christianity, all of these various denominations that have some differences of their own doctrine and processes for ordination and principles that sort of govern the way they work.

And we know that religious freedom protects all of them. And it sort of adds to this mix of how religion in America works and how religious liberty thrives and protects all of us.

I know for you, Guthrie, that Methodist life is particularly important, and that’s probably what led you to write about this. You wrote an article as an MSNBC religion contributor. I want to hear your reaction about this news.

GUTHRIE: Thanks, Holly. This news hit particularly close to home for me. I was raised in a United Methodist church in Texas, and it was a really wonderful experience. I loved church. I was super involved in youth group. I preached twice on youth Sunday where they allow a member of the youth group to actually preach the main Sunday —

HOLLY: Awesome.

GUTHRIE: — sermon from the pulpit. Going on mission trips — I did everything except sing in the choir. You don’t want to hear me sing.

HOLLY: (Laughing.)

GUTHRIE: But church was very important to me, and I sensed from an early age a call to ordained ministry and really making living out my faith — not just something I did on Sundays, but something I wanted to devote my entire life to and find a career in.

As I was discerning this call to ministry, I was also coming to terms with being gay, and I knew that the United Methodist Church banned, in their words, self-avowed practicing homosexuals. That’s the words that were in the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline. And so I was balancing both a call to ministry and an official church ban on me being ordained.


GUTHRIE: At the same time, I also knew that there was a push to change the policy.

The United Methodist Church meets every four years for what they call General Conference, and that’s the top legislative body of the United Methodist Church. And I knew that at successive General Conferences, people had debated, and I knew that in my own local church, I never heard anything damning about LGBTQ people. It was very welcoming, and I knew there was diversity within the United Methodist Church.

When I went to seminary at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, I went ahead and took the classes required for ordination in the United Methodist Church. I’m an eternal optimist. And so I saw that the change was going to come. The change —

HOLLY: Maybe by the time you got out of school, huh?

GUTHRIE: The change we’ve been talking about at the top of this episode — I knew was going to come, because I hope and I have optimism that the good, in my view, will win out in the end. And I think that that’s the testimony of Scripture as well.

And so I went in 2016 to General Conference. It was my last class of seminary, kind of a field trip — I was in seminary in New York City and flew across to Portland, Oregon, and my mom came as well. And we had this banner of photos of all these people from the church where I grew up, and it was a kind of a public witness to the entire United Methodist Church General Conference. And I went across the country with a deep sense of hope that the church would make this change, and when they didn’t, I decided to leave.

Now, that decision to leave, I think, set me on a different course in life, because after leaving the United Methodist Church, I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, with my now husband and found — and was looking for a new church and didn’t really know where I was going to land and walked into Highland Baptist Church, which is an amazing, wonderful congregation that’s affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists, and immediately felt at home.

And just this huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. The church had already made the decision to embrace the dignity of LGBTQ people before I ever walked in the doors. And I just knew that I could be myself, pursue a call to ministry, and do it in community with other people. And in the process, I discovered a love of Baptist theology.

HOLLY: We’re glad you did.

GUTHRIE: I discovered a love of the autonomy of the local church, that the process — and this is not a dig at Methodists who I — we actually had a stained glass picture of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, in Highland Baptist Church, and I’d sit near it.

HOLLY: Oh, wow. Yeah.

GUTHRIE: So I have a lot of fondness for Methodism. But I discovered in Baptist life that the decision to allow ordaining LGBTQ people and performing same-sex marriage was made at the local church level, where people were in relationship, where we studied the Bible. I taught Bible study for five years almost every Sunday.

And so we were studying the Bible together. We were living out Christian community together, and that’s the context in which we — the church decided to change its mind on how it treated LGBTQ people. And then several years later, I’m now working professionally in Baptist life, which is amazing how God works and has led me to becoming a Baptist and to being on this podcast right now.

HOLLY: Yeah. Well, Guthrie, thanks for sharing that story. And I can just see your love of church and how, you know, you both can talk so fondly of what you got as a young man growing up in that church and then the disappointment at that time of the General Conference not moving fast enough — right? — and not deciding at the time.

But the fact that you stuck with your faith and, you know, made a change and found a way to continue to thrive in your faith, I think is just a real testament to how religion often works in people’s lives, and the diversity in religious life and the changes that both individuals and religious communities go through.

GUTHRIE: And change happens on many different levels. I had a series of female pastors growing up at this Methodist church — and then only discovered later that having three in a row female pastors was not the norm in most churches.

So I had seen how people change their minds on topics.

HOLLY: Well, first, Guthrie, thank you for writing this piece, and congratulations on a job well done. You tell the story in a clear way and a personal way that I know will resonate with a lot of people. And I understand that it marks a conclusion to what’s been like a long and difficult process for many people in and outside of Methodist life.

And I wonder now how you think about it when you kind of look back on the story that you’ve told and think about where you are now. What does it feel like?

GUTHRIE: I have compassion for my younger self who dreamed of pursuing a life in ministry and felt that was not a path open to him, and it gave me a real sense of excitement about religious diversity as well, that I could change churches and find somewhere else that welcomed me and that also not to give up hope as well.

I’ve stayed connected. I’m on the email newsletter list for the church where I grew up in Houston and saw they were doing a — their first ever Pride Picnic next month. I hope for a world like the one I grew up with in relation to how so many churches had a drawn-out process for ordaining women, that the future children — like I did — grow up in a church where people’s inherent worth and dignity aren’t being debated.

So while this issue is deeply personal to me, I’ve also seen, as someone who looks at the broader, changing religious landscape of the United States, that it is the most significant shift in a larger trend towards LGBTQ inclusion.

We’ve seen the second, third and fourth largest mainline Protestant denominations in the United States change their policies in the past couple decades. That’s the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, and the Presbyterian Church USA, which are each the largest denominations in their traditions, have all made this change.

Of course, not everyone has changed their mind, though, and we want to be respectful of everyone’s religious liberty.



Segment 3: Bridging differences (starting at 16:33)

HOLLY: There are religious traditions within Christianity and outside of Christianity that have not and probably will not, at least soon, change their views on marriage and human sexuality. That is at odds with the majority of the population. And for the reasons stated earlier, it’s not always easy to characterize precisely the thinking in those traditions on what can be a complex matter of theology and practice with regards to human sexuality.

But what I’ve seen through the years is that many within those traditions that, I would say, take a hard line or what they would call a more traditional view, that many of them want to find a way to navigate respectfully, either as a matter of being good neighbors or just lived reality of knowledge and love for LGBTQ people that they know.

And I think that the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell in 2015 that upheld the rights of same-sex couples to marry, I think that that helps these traditions, that people can see that upholding same-sex marriage can be an advancement for LGBTQ people. It is, and it acknowledges people and their equal dignity and right to have the kind of marriages that other non-LGBTQ people often have taken for granted.

And so I think by the Court accepting that and people understanding those civil rights, it makes it a little bit easier for religious traditions to understand and distinguish between what their faith tells them and how the law protects us all.

GUTHRIE: I think you make an important point, Holly, that we need to be precise, respectful and nuanced in this conversation.

HOLLY: Uh-huh.

GUTHRIE: Not every religious group opposed to LGBTQ rights is like Westboro Baptist Church — holding — picketing at funerals and being nasty —

HOLLY: That’s right.

GUTHRIE: — in their public witness. And there’s mischaracterizations by anti-LGBTQ religious groups as well, that LGBTQ people are creating a new religion or kind of doing away with religion. And so I think across the debate — we should have a debate. We can come to compromise in a pluralistic society, but that we should be respectful of people’s different theological views and different public policy views and not broadly describe pro-LGBTQ secularists who are doing away with tradition on one hand or the anti-LGBTQ bigots whose religion is hate. Neither of those is an accurate description of many people.

HOLLY: I think we can’t say that enough, Guthrie. I mean, we like seeing people work together. We understand that people don’t always agree, particularly about religious matters. We know that for sure out of our Baptist tradition. But we can avoid taking those disagreements to harmful ends, and we can avoid other-ing people and ignoring their lived realities.

Now, we know that, as we mentioned, there are going to be some situations that are going to be more difficult to navigate, particularly religious institutions and how they work of traditions that maintain opposition to same-sex marriage. It’s more difficult to kind of navigate how to protect their religious freedom in a world that demands equal treatment for LGBTQ couples.

And many are struggling with that, again, I would say, both because of the demands within those traditions as well as outside the entities. And I think it’s important, as we try to do this work, Guthrie, that we ask questions and that we try to understand the importance of religious exemptions, how they serve religious freedom.

But as we talk about these demands and difficulties in establishing policy, I think it’s important, as you note, Guthrie, to recognize our differences, to ask good questions, to do the work that we do at BJC to help people understand the role of religious exemptions and how they can protect religious freedom for all, and to take them very seriously, as well as acknowledge the difficulties.

GUTHRIE: That’s completely right, Holly. And since you brought up Obergefell, I think we should go back and reflect upon something that was in the kind of cultural and policy discussion at the time, which was that same-sex marriage, as the civil law of the land, would infringe upon the practices within religious communities, you know, forcing pastors to do same-sex marriages or closing churches that wouldn’t do same-sex marriages, and it would — inherently allowing same-sex marriage to exist would be a threat to religious liberty.

That is completely unrealized, and frankly, I think it was always disingenuous argument just against making same-sex marriage the civil law of the land. And in the now almost decade since Obergefell, there have been no closures of churches. There have been no pastors forced to do gay weddings.

HOLLY: Yeah, Guthrie. I remember that. There was a great deal of fearmongering before Obergefell, you know, as same-sex marriage was approved in different states. Part of the argument against it that we heard from some quarters was that it was going to harm churches.

And we always knew and often said that, you know, that the civil law was not going to demand that houses of worship change how they conduct marriages. I mean, and we just knew that from our experience and how churches have so many different practices when it came to marriage, and so that was never a real threat. It was something, Guthrie, as you recall very vividly, that was part of the conversation at the time.

And what I remember, too, in addition to some of that fearmongering was that when you had real conversations about religious freedom and about the distinction between civil marriage and religious marriage, you had churches doing some necessary self-reflecting about marriage and how they had sort of taken for granted their views of marriage being the law of the land, without understanding the religious diversity in America, much less the important civil rights and civil needs of their LGBTQ neighbors.

GUTHRIE: As we have these debates, it’d be a lovely place to have them if the people now demanding religious exemptions had been advocating for understanding a broader understanding of marriage prior to Obergefell.

HOLLY: Well, what was real and anticipated was that there would be conflicts for religious institutions that were part of traditions that oppose same-sex marriage, and of course, we’ve seen that. Battles continue.

You know, the conflicts typically arise when faith-based institutions that are not houses of worship — as we said, you know, houses of worship really tend to operate according to their own faith in ways that are really hands-off from the government’s perspective — but other institutions, particularly educational institutions, businesses, social service agencies, that are regulated by the law in different ways, conflicts typically involve questions around faith-based institutions — not houses of worship for the reasons that we said — but faith-based institutions like educational institutions, you know, colleges, but also sometimes businesses, religious social service agencies.

In these settings, there are different laws that apply, and you’re more likely to see some kind of conflict. That conflict might have to do with what kind of regulations go along with federal funding or engagement with the public. And, you know, what makes these more interesting, in my view, and difficult sometimes to work out is that they involve different expectations.

And, Guthrie, this conversation’s really good, because we can talk about the expectations you have of your home church — right? — and your denomination, but then your expectations in life, to be able to go and, you know, be somewhere else for your religious tradition. And if you think about — that’s a particular kind of freedom and you might, unfortunately, expect that sometimes we change religious traditions or churches for different reasons.

But we don’t necessarily expect to be treated differently based upon protected categories when we go, for instance, to receive social services that are paid for by the government or when we go into a public commercial marketplace. So it’s in these other settings where often these conflicts arise, but that maybe institutions or individuals involved in them hold anti-LGBTQ views that are rooted in religion and that affect how these institutions are governed or operate.

GUTHRIE: That’s exactly right, Holly. And it makes me think about my wedding, because as we’ve talked about earlier, I moved churches into a church that would perform the wedding and celebrate it and ordain me as a deacon in the church. So I moved churches. I didn’t expect the law or the government to force the church I left to perform my marriage.

But there are, as you said, a different set of expectations as we went out and looked for wedding vendors. For instance, we were looking for a photographer, and there was actually a case in Louisville — where we were — about a photographer who didn’t want to participate in a same-sex wedding.

And so that raises all these interesting questions about the role of clergy, which we can all agree on, and then all these other questions about a baker — we’ll talk about — a florist, a photographer, all of these people who are — a wedding website designer, that was the case that made it to the Supreme Court.

HOLLY: Uh-huh.

GUTHRIE: And so there are all of these — as the circle goes out more and more from the house of worship — different contexts in which we are having to discuss religious exemptions. These are all things we have to navigate, and we see these issues play out in the courts, in Congress, and the executive branch.

Holly, you and I were both quoted in a report released by the Brookings Institution called “A Time to Heal, A Time to Build.” It was written by Melissa Rogers and E.J. Dionne. Melissa is a former BJC general counsel and serves as executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and as senior director for faith and public policy in the White House Domestic Policy Council.

And I’m bringing this up, because my contribution to this report and really to this entire discussion, Holly, is very narrow. What I want out of this discussion — I’m willing to have the compromise; I’m willing to debate the policy; I’m willing to not get everything out of a society how I would design it.

HOLLY: Right.

GUTHRIE: But the ground that I’m holding is this — and this comes from the report, and we’ll link to it in show notes. “As government does this work, it should not make the mistake of describing debates in this area as ones between ‘religious people’ and ‘LGBTQ people,’ ‘religious rights’ and ‘LGBTQ rights,’ or between ‘religious liberty advocates’ and ‘LGBTQ advocates.'”

And then the report goes on to state that, “Many LGBTQ people, not to mention their allies, are religious, and these issues are a matter of debate among religious liberty advocates as well.”

HOLLY: Well, amen, Guthrie. I’m glad you remembered that report. It is something we said then. It’s said something we said before then, and it’s something that we’ll continue to say today and anytime thereafter when people unnecessarily and, I think, unfairly force those kinds of false categories.

GUTHRIE: So that’s how we see it, Holly. But how are you observing the United States Supreme Court looking at these issues?

HOLLY: Well, it’s common for people to say that, you know, the Court often lags behind society, and I think that that’s true in this area as well. I think we see, the affirmation of same-sex marriage but by a narrow vote, and then we’ve seen some concerns that that may not be as secure a precedent as people thought and hoped. We’ve seen a continuing concern for religious differences, upholding religious exemptions in broad ways.

You know, we’ve seen the expansion of understanding of nondiscrimination laws, and that is, of course, in the Bostock case, understanding that sex in the civil rights laws, a protected category, includes sexual orientation and gender identity issues, then leaving open the door about how that might apply in religious contexts.

So I think the Court, by looking at these cases, you can kind of see reflections of what we’ve been talking about in this podcast, Guthrie, that in different contexts, it’s going to come up in different ways, and the Court is holding firm to protecting broad religious exemptions in ways that will continue to inspire LGBTQ advocates to continue to fight to make sure that they are protected in lots of different contexts, and sort of struggling to find where these lines have to be drawn.

We see mostly a strong deference toward religious institutions. Particularly we’ve seen that in the area of religious schools and understanding of what’s known as the ministerial exception. Of course, we’ve seen twice the Court struggle with the idea of religious exemptions in the commercial marketplace.

The Court has avoided finding religious liberty as an absolute trump card. At the same time, the Court has been deferential toward businesses claiming that the owners have religious differences with the demands for nondiscrimination laws.

And we saw that in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, a case that is often wrongly described as allowing religious exemptions from nondiscrimination laws in the commercial marketplace. That’s not what the case is about, and we can link to some resources on that case.

We saw similarly the same kinds of claim being made in the 303 Creative case where a website designer claimed exemption to a public accommodations law. And these cases aren’t really making things easier, and I think we are going to continue to have to struggle with how we ensure nondiscrimination in the commercial marketplace and in other contexts while understanding these religious differences.

Guthrie, as we follow those cases and oftentimes advocate in those cases or dissect them in ways that we can be respectful of religious freedom and the importance of nondiscrimination laws, we know that the Court is not finished addressing these issues, and there are many people trying to get different cases to the Court, to keep pushing this debate.

And in the meantime, you know, communities have to work these things out, and a lot of them are worked out at the state and local level. And, you know, Congress has not been able to do that, has not been able to negotiate some kind of peaceful settlement of these issues broadly, although there was one very important development in this area.

Back in December 2022, the president signed the Respect for Marriage Act, which does reflect the kind of compromise that we’ve been talking about, Guthrie, to protect same-sex marriage while also recognizing differences about marriage.

GUTHRIE: That’s right, Holly. And it was a response, as you mentioned earlier, to the well-founded fear that Obergefell is not settled law and that after Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, that this different Court — we have a very different Court now than we had at the Obergefell Court — could overturn it.

The Respect for Marriage Act overturned the Defense of Marriage Act and provided for federal recognition of same-sex marriage across state lines. Also let’s not forget it provided the same protections for interracial marriages which did not exist in federal law.

HOLLY: And I was thinking about what an important development that was in Congress, and we don’t — we often talk about Congress not acting in ways, but it’s important to celebrate when they do act well.

And I was reminded of that when I attended the religious liberty dinner for the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Public Affairs and Religious Liberty — that’s a long name of saying, our good friends in the Seventh-day Adventist Church that fight for religious freedom. The keynote honoree was Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who was one of the main leaders for the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act.

It was passed, as you note, Guthrie, after members of the Supreme Court seemed to cast doubt on the Obergefell decision, and, you know, Senator Collins gave a lovely speech, thanking those who were willing to work on this issue, to work both as a matter of concern for religious freedom and LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage, and how they had to come together through lots of conversations but to get a bill passed that all sides could be pleased with, that recognized religious differences while also, as you note, protecting same-sex marriage.

GUTHRIE: This was an important compromise, Holly, and I think it sets a good tone for people working in a bipartisan way to achieve real protections and knowing that no one is going to get everything that they want.

Reading from the act itself here, we have under the Section 6, No Impact on Religious Liberty and Conscience, it says, “Nothing in this Act, or any amendment made by this Act, shall be construed to diminish or abrogate a religious liberty or conscience protection otherwise available to an individual or organization under the Constitution of the United States or Federal law.”

So we have there, Holly, stated explicitly, so there’s no confusion, and I think that that is something LGBTQ rights advocates have said, that the concern, for instance, that Obergefell was going to somehow diminish religious liberty was not real, and here we have explicitly in the text of the Act that is the federal legislation for same-sex marriage saying it, so that it’s very clear for everyone. The existing religious liberty protections that already exist apply here, and you cannot use this to somehow, as a Trojan horse, get under those protections.

HOLLY: That’s a good reminder, Guthrie. It takes down the temperature. It is a dose of reality, and I think it aids positive conversations, and that’s what our country really needs now. We need fewer divisions, more recognizing and working together.

GUTHRIE: And I’ve seen it, Holly. I’ve worked with the leading LGBTQ rights advocacy organizations in this country. I was the co-chair of Faith for the Equality Act, a broad coalition of faith-based groups, pushing for federal legislation, and I’ve seen a real willingness to work with religious organizations that do not support same-sex marriage as a theological matter, to work out these small percentage of situations where there’s a lot of friction between religious exercise and LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections.

And we can’t let those small areas of friction prevent us from making advances that protect the vast majority of people. And so while we work those out and they’re important — I don’t want to diminish anybody that has been caught in one of these very awful situations where they are LGBTQ and facing discrimination and told the person discriminating against them is doing it because of religion — I don’t want to diminish that in any way. But I do think that through compromise and coming together across difference, we can make practical progress. And the limited cases where there is friction shouldn’t prevent us from doing that.

HOLLY: I think that’s an important perspective, Guthrie, and, you know, we care about people, in addition to your religion and religious liberty broadly, and so it’s important to think about these matters, not just from a policy perspective but also an individual perspective and how these various conflicts affect individuals.

And I know that’s something that’s really important to you as you represented BJC recently at the Creating Change conference.

GUTHRIE: I did, along with two of my BJC colleagues. We presented a workshop at Creating Change, which is the largest conference of LGBTQ rights activists in the country, earlier this year. And the workshop was titled, “Co-Creating a Vision of LGBTQ Freedom and Religious Freedom.”

And we guided the participants through an exercise to talk about, What does religious freedom mean to you? what does LGBTQ freedom mean to you? We talked about the threat of Christian nationalism to LGBTQ freedom. And we had a beautiful, diverse experience of people’s relationship to religion and how we can achieve both religious freedom and LGBTQ freedom.

And one thing that really stuck with me from this conversation was a piece of feedback — or critique — of our workshop which is that we need space for LGBTQ people to process religious trauma. I took that to heart, because I’m an optimist. I think that through policy work and compromise and understanding different perspectives, we can make progress.

And I can be too often focused on problem-solving and getting something done and focusing on the public opinion that shows huge shifts in opinion among American Christians towards LGBTQ rights. And I’ll see a glass that’s 10 percent full and say it’s 10 percent full, and ignore the 90 percent empty.

HOLLY: I thought you were going to say, see it’s 10 percent full and say it’s 50 percent full. (Laughter)

GUTHRIE: I’ve also been known to over-estimate how full things are, so I think there’s a piece of that there for sure. I don’t think after discussing the Respect for Marriage Act, discussing my own experience of finding an affirming church, marrying someone and having my church celebrate that, being ordained — I don’t want people to come away from this conversation with too rosy a picture.

HOLLY: Sure.

GUTHRIE: So many LGBTQ people have been deeply harmed by religious institutions. I don’t know anyone — even people that were raised in affirming spaces had relatives or friends or people in their life that disowned them or said terrible things to them because of who they are and who they love.

And I don’t want to lose that in a policy discussion or in a discussion about how things are getting better. As positive as I feel, I never want to discount all the harm that has been done to people in the name of religion.

HOLLY: Thank you, Guthrie.

GUTHRIE: Thank you, Holly. I appreciate how much BJC is committed to creating a more fair and just society and living out our mission of faith freedom for all.

HOLLY: That brings us to the close of this episode of Respecting Religion. Thanks for joining us. For more information on what we discussed, visit our website at RespectingReligion.org for show notes and a transcript of this program. Respecting Religion is produced by Cherilyn Guy.

GUTHRIE: Learn more about our work at BJC, defending faith freedom for all, by visiting our website at BJConline.org.

HOLLY: We’d love to hear from you. You can email Amanda and me by writing to [email protected].

GUTHRIE: We’re also on social media @BJContheHill, and you can follow Amanda on X, which used to be called Twitter, @AmandaTylerBJC.

HOLLY: And if you enjoyed this show, share it with others. Take a moment to leave us a review or a five-star rating to help more people find it.

GUTHRIE: We also want to thank you for supporting this podcast. You can donate to these conversations by visiting the link in our show notes.

HOLLY: Join us on Thursdays for new conversations Respecting Religion.