How Religious Freedom Benefits the Black Church

How Religious Freedom Benefits the Black Church May 20, 2021

When I first arrived from Jamaica to the United States in 1979, I did not fully understand the ramifications of religious freedom. Even though I was a practicing Christian, I remember denying a staff member’s request for a day off on Good Friday as a new manager at a Boston hospital. It never occurred to me that I might be impinging on this person’s expression of faith. In retrospect, it’s a decision I deeply regret.

At the time, religious freedom simply wasn’t on my radar, even though I was deeply involved with issues of racial and economic justice. However, in 2010, I began to see things differently. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty awarded a dear friend and noted Princeton professor, Robert P. George, the Canterbury Medal for his work in defense of religious freedom. In conversation after the event, he made an obvious point that struck me with new power: It is essential for all people of faith to defend the right of others to disagree with them if they would ensure the genuineness of their own faith commitments. This led to a growing conviction about the importance of advancing the freedom of conscience both for people of faith and for those of no faith.

I became increasingly attuned to the importance of religious freedom protections for the Black church as the director of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies. As a committed Christian, I was convinced of the moral rightness of the biblical mandate for marriage between one man and one woman. I was also aware of the growing acceptance of homosexual unions in the United States and the developing opprobrium against those who maintained the right to dissent, including those in the Black church.

Since the establishment of Black denominations, they have played a critical role in protecting Black people from the effects of white supremacy. Black churches have served as sites for worship, intellectual exchange, social interaction, mutual support, leadership development and organizing against racial and economic injustice. Today, small urban churches, often located among populations with the greatest needs, continue this tradition. One study found that Black congregations in Philadelphia, though smaller and under resourced compared to white churches, provided $89,000 per annum in services to their neighbors. The rate at which Black congregations provided programming was greater than comparable white ones. These are key Black institutions, especially for the poorest African Americans. Since they uphold the biblical standards on sexuality and gender, it was clear that religious freedom guarantees were urgently needed for these congregations.

Black churches also hold a fundamental belief that justice requires the church to defend the rights of all people. This must include individuals of every sexual orientation and gender identity. Religious communities have too often fallen short of that standard. This is a sin which the churches must correct.

Even though Black churches need the protections of religious freedom, they are often more reluctant to engage in the fight for it. When the former governor of Utah, Mike Leavitt, invited my husband, the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III, founder and director of the Seymour Institute, to become involved with the American Religious Freedom Program, we traveled to Kansas to support efforts to pass a state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Act and learned about this reluctance firsthand. We encountered a major challenge in getting the Black churches involved: a long-standing lack of support from religious freedom champions on issues about which Black communities care deeply. The most visible and ardent champions of religious freedom have often been far less interested in matters of racial justice.

Historically, the faith traditions to which many concerned with religious freedom belong have been hostile to the freedom and rights of Blacks. This was true when the religious freedom of slaves was protected in the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina but reinterpreted to ensure that enslaved Africans could not sue for freedom on the basis of their Christian faith. It was true when the religious freedom of Southern whites was used as an argument against Harry Truman’s efforts to end employment discrimination based on race. It is true today when conservative Christians are indifferent to the public policy implications of the needs of poor Black communities.

Furthermore, African Americans have overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party and the candidates of that party since President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Although it impacts all Americans, regardless of party, religious freedom is often seen as a Republican issue, which makes it difficult for many Blacks to support. After all, in the 20th century, the Republican Party served as a refuge for Southern whites who deserted the Democratic Party when Lyndon B. Johnson propelled the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act into law. For many African Americans, to be associated with religious freedom advocacy smacks of betraying the fight for racial justice merely by association.

I understand the hesitancy. Nonetheless, it is critical for all Christians to fight together for religious freedom as well as for social justice issues that align with core religious teachings. The right to act on deeply held religious beliefs has been among the most powerful weapons advancing justice for the Black community.

It was this very right that allowed the Southern Leadership Conference and the tens of thousands of Black Southerners to march for civil rights. It was this very right that empowered the children of slaves to assert their faith in the fatherhood of God and the resulting brotherhood of all humans. Indeed, it was deep religious faith, stirred up by passionate singing and rousing sermons late into the night, that motivated African Americans to confront fire hoses, police dogs and officers with batons during peaceful marches for civil rights.

Black churches are at risk because of declining support for this freedom. The Equality Act — which has already passed the House and is currently before the Senate — is a misnomer. The proposed legislation does not treat all Americans as equal but subjects the rights of people of faith to the rights of LGBTQ individuals. The act expands nondiscrimination provisions for the LGBTQ community on the back of federal civil rights protections. The provisions of the Civil Rights Act were created to address the legacy of slavery and the historical pattern of discrimination on the basis of race. The insinuation that sexual orientation and gender identity are analogous to race is false. This comparison implies, incorrectly, a historical and existential equivalence between the harm that LGBTQ individuals have endured and the experience of African Americans, who suffered the unique horrors of white supremacy, slavery, rape, terrorism and apartheid in the U.S.

One area of great concern is the fact that this act strips away the right to appeal to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, largely gutting that law. In the opinion of Douglas Laycock, a leading legal scholar, the act “would ‘crush’ conscientious objectors.” The implications for Black people and Black congregations can’t be overstated. Black students are heavily represented among those attending religious colleges that would be at risk of losing federal funding because of the schools’ commitment to biblical values in the area of sexuality. And minority students at these schools are heavily dependent on federal aid. Thus, the act is likely to restrict the options of such students, reducing the number of colleges they might attend. A similar impact is possible for younger urban students who, abundant research has shown, are particularly well served by parochial schools.

At the same time, the act expands the definition of public accommodation, so that many entities, such as houses of worship, that would previously have been exempt could now fall under this act. Most Black churches offer youth services, provide cash assistance, operate food pantries and carry out voter registration, among many other services provided to their members and neighbors. The Equality Act would jeopardize the ability of these churches to offer services in accordance with their deeply held religious beliefs.

The potential harm to Black churches and to the vulnerable populations we serve motivates me to act, as I have recently in co-signing a letter to the Senate on the Equality Act from the AND Campaign, an organization committed to biblical values and social justice. As a daughter of the Black church, an elder in my own fellowship, as a Black Christian committed to justice, I am convinced of the need to protect the church’s right to live and teach in accordance with our most profound faith commitments. Two key aspects of this are standing firm on biblical anthropology and serving the poor and needy.

I am therefore compelled to speak out against the Equality Act. Another key biblical principle must be observed: defending the rights of all individuals, especially those such as members of the LGBTQ community who have been targets of social ostracism. Therefore, I urge Congress to protect LBGTQ individuals. But Congress must not strip away the protections provided by the bipartisan Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It must not expand the meaning of public accommodations in a way that puts Black congregations that can least afford it at risk of lawsuits. Surely our legislators are wise enough to find a way to protect the rights of the LBGTQ community while reinforcing fundamental, constitutionally protected freedom of conscience and religion.

Jacqueline Cooke-Rivers is the director of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies and a doctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Note: Portions of this essay are included in the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies’ statement on the Equality Act.


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