ELCA Support for the Equality Act: What Does it Mean?

Earlier this year, I noticed that ELCA Advocacy had given the Equality Act its full and unqualified endorsement.   It also encouraged members of the ELCA to write their Senators, calling upon them to support the legislation.  In doing so, the ELCA made reference to the social statement Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust (HSGT). 

I wrote to Presiding Bishop Eaton, saying:

The ELCA has declared its support of the Equality Act.  It is also urging its members to write to their Senators in support of the Equality Act. What I am wondering is whether the ELCA has given any thought to how the Equality Act will affect those congregations who choose not to call partnered homosexual pastors, or who choose not to perform same-sex weddings.  

As you know, there is debate about whether the act will remove religious freedom protections from congregations and pastors.  Has the ELCA considered this question?  Is the ELCA prepared to defend the right of its congregations and pastors to act in accordance with their “bound consciences” as was promised in 2009

The response came not from Presiding Bishop Eaton, but from Rev. Amy Reumann, Senior Director, Witnessing in Society, ELCA.  She assured me that the ELCA is aware of the “implications with respect to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”  She further stated that the ELCA is “reviewing that language in consultation with a number of our full communion partners and ELCA legal staff.”  Finally, she said that the ELCA hopes “to work with these Senate offices in discerning legislative language that achieves a bi-partisan and fair bill for protecting equal rights and religious integrity.”

I was very pleased to hear this and I had only two requests.  I asked if the ELCA would be willing to reiterate what Rev. Reumann told me in a public statement to ELCA congregations and whether I could share her reply.  She said yes to the latter.  In regard to the former, she asked what kind of public message would be helpful in my context.

It is at this point that our conversation began to go awry.  I gave her a fairly detailed response, clearly stating what I would like the ELCA to reaffirm.  Essentially, I asked that the ELCA publicly restate that choosing not to call a partnered homosexual and not to perform same sex weddings, and teaching in accord with positions 1, 2, or 3 of HSGT are still permitted and encouraged by this church.  Secondly, I asked that the ELCA publicly state its opposition to any language in the Equality Act that would or might punish ELCA congregations for these approved practices.

From that point forward, I received several replies reiterating ELCA policy, along with historical documents that detailed the Ministry Policy Resolutions adopted in 2009.  However, the question about whether the ELCA would publicly reiterate its commitment to those documents and to religious freedom protections for its congregations was not answered.  Finally, after a full week and another e-mail to Presiding Bishop Eaton, I received an e-mail telling me that my concerns would be addressed in ELCA Advocacy materials that would come out in April.

In April, ELCA Advocacy did in fact include the following words in its message:

Some U.S Senators support the intent of the Equality Act but have broader concerns about religious exemptions. There may be amendments proposed responding to these concerns.

As in the Senate, in the ELCA there is a diversity of beliefs and debates about possible impacts of this legislation on religious exemptions.

In an April 13 “guest blog” on ELCA Advocacy Blog, ELCA General Counsel, Thomas Cunniff, wrote:

We urge the adoption of legislation that ensures the full rights of LGBTQ+ persons without infringing on religious liberty or permitting improper government interference in the ecclesiastical activities of religious organizations. Blanket exemptions for anyone claiming a religious motive are too broad and would eviscerate necessary civil rights protections for historically marginalized groups. Not providing space in which dissenting religious groups can practice their beliefs free from government interference, however, would gravely damage freedom of conscience. Moreover, fully exempting statutes from RFRA sets a dangerous precedent of permitting the government to forcibly impose the views of the majority on minority religions, a precedent which could easily be weaponized by a future Congress and President. For these reasons, the ELCA is committed to continue working with others, including full communion partners, to find a solution that fully protects the civil rights of our LGBTQ+ siblings while at the same time protecting the free exercise and conscience rights of religious objectors.

That was not the last word on the matter, however.  On April 16, ELCA Advocacy sent an Action Alert with the following apology:

Issuance of the Action Alert related to the Equality Act on April 13 elicited strong reaction communicated through social media and other channels. Anger, deception, confusion, and contribution to a deepening of harm already part of the lives of many LGBTQIA+ members and other siblings surfaced, along with questioning advocacy process and accountability in the ELCA. For presenting a lack of care on these deep-felt issues, we apologize.  [alert]

It further stated that:

The blog post, “Equal Rights and Religious Freedom,” remains public on our ELCA advocacy blog not for prescriptive purposes but as background on “a false choice between equal rights and religious freedom.” Anticipated is a guest blog post that will provide further perspectives.

This seems to indicate that Mr. Cunniff’s blog post does not express the opinion of the ELCA and in no way indicates how the ELCA will proceed in relation to the Equality Act.  So we are left with a deeply ambiguous and equivocal statement of ELCA policy regarding “bound conscience” and religious freedom.  

Sadly, this leaves us where we began.  Any congregation with a commitment to traditional views on marriage and ordination is left uncertain about the future.