The Law of Unintended Consequences
This spring The General Assembly of North Carolina passed a discriminatory law known as HB-2 that was directed at LGBT, especially transgender people. The rationale for the abrupt passage and signature, with no debate or discussion, was that it was a matter of public safety and quickly was tagged “the bathroom bill.” It was much broader than that and provoked not only demonstrations and condemnations across a broad spectrum of businesses, churches and organizations, but it also had an immediate and serious economic impact. Despite the fact that the reputation of the state had been severely damaged, the General Assembly refused to repeal the legislation so now it is headed into several lawsuits and countersuits.
Although the intent of the law clearly was to appeal to the radical right wing of the Republican Party in North Carolina that is largely rural, the effect of the law was to explode into a national debate on transgender issues. For an almost invisible minority even within the LGBT community, the mainstream media has devoted extensive coverage not only to the law but also to basic transgender issues. Of course, Caitlyn Jenner earlier had broken the silence with widespread coverage in the gossip magazines and cable channels, but that coverage was relatively limited in spite of her continuing self-promotion. Ordinary transgender people are news now, and profiles, features and human-interest stories appear in a wide variety of print and electronic media. Unwittingly, the General Assembly brought transgender issues out of the closet.
After the U.S. Supreme Court approved same-sex marriage last year, the backlash has taken the form of 100+ anti-LGBT laws in 22 states. Some are promoted as religious freedom, i.e. they allow people to ignore or opt out of anti-discrimination laws because of their religious beliefs. These state legislatures have taken a variety of approaches in passing laws that discriminate against LGBT people. A handful of US states and cities have passed laws or ordinances to protect LGBT people from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. North Carolina was the first to focus on transgender people’s use of public bathrooms. That strategy came out of a successful referendum in Houston that overturned a protective ordinance. The North Carolina law is the subject of four lawsuits in federal court; two on each side. The U.S. Department of Justice has filed suit against North Carolina for violation of the Civil Rights Act and has threatened to withhold federal funding until a decision is settled in court.
The Federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that would add sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender identity as protected classes to existing laws has been lingering in Congress for 20 years. It appears that protection for LGBT people against discrimination is going to end up in the courts and may eventually find its way to the Supreme Court. No one is speculating if that may move as quickly (about 5 years) as the same-sex marriage cases did.
The legislative body of the United Methodist Church, the General Conference, once again dodged LGBT issues, and this time established a special commission with the members to be appointed by the Council of Bishops. The rationale is that the Book of Discipline (official church doctrine) forbids same-sex practices even though it is written and approved by the General Conference. Therefore they have the power (but not the votes) to change it. Although same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states, the General Conference has refused to allow it. Several other mainline Protestant Churches have accepted LGBT people to be ordained in the clergy, but the United Methodist Church either refuses to ordain them or brings them to trial if they publicly acknowledge their homosexuality. The trials are held at the discretion of the local bishop of the applicable Annual Conference and may result in withdrawing credentials (licenses) to preach. Therefore many Methodist ministers have left to join other denominations.
The United Methodist Church is bogged down in the political maneuvering over dogma the same way the politicians at both the federal and state level are choosing to use LGBT discrimination laws as a wedge issue for political pandering. Those who are non-affirming claim they only are protecting orthodox religious beliefs, but that also was true about slavery. Progress in civil rights in the U.S. has come slowly over a period of many decades, and that appears to be the case for many LGBT issues.