As a longtime North Carolina faith leader, I am hoping that Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis will help find common ground to ensure fairness and equality for all Americans.
For decades, Congress has neglected its responsibility to protect the LGBTQ community — but with both parties now offering proposals to add nondiscrimination protections to the law, 2021 could finally be the year to change that. I look to Senators Burr and Tillis to join a bipartisan coalition in hammering out the details of this crucial legislation.
Over the years, I’ve enjoyed the privilege of serving congregations that have been welcoming to LGBTQ members. Now I’m interim pastor at the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, a More Light congregation that formally invites the full participation of LGBTQ Presbyterians into the life of our faith community. Our congregation embraces everyone as children of God and blessed creatures. Reconciliation made history in 2012 when Reverend Katie Ricks, the first openly lesbian pastor ordained by the Presbyterian Church USA, became Associate Pastor.
There is a refreshing unity at Reconciliation, with no tug-of-war over our inclusive culture. The congregation includes many same-sex couples, some of whom were married here. The recent change in policy at the UNC-Chapel Hill Presbyterian Campus Ministry that all congregations represented on its board be More Light (inclusive), however, reminded me of the vital importance of unity and healing as Presbyterians of varying opinions confront new challenges. As a pastor, my obligation is to serve all of my congregants with love and respect, regardless of any differences in viewpoint.
Chapel Hill has a vibrant LGBTQ community, but in the outlying rural area where my family lives, my volunteering on an anti-bullying task group enabled me to see the extent of the problem in our local school system. Thankfully, school officials here in Chatham County have been responsive on the issue.
Gaining traction against discrimination in the public square, unfortunately, has not been uniform from what I’ve witnessed of North Carolina communities. I hear stories of workplace discrimination. I’ve witnessed local social service agencies struggle to deliver equity to LGBTQ residents despite constraints imposed by state law. North Carolina still provides no nondiscrimination protections for its nearly 400,000 LGBTQ residents.
Sadly, North Carolina is not unique on this score. I’ve learned that discrimination has profoundly damaging consequences for LGBTQ Americans nationwide. One in three, according to a 2020 survey, experienced discrimination — in public spaces, on the job, in schools, and in their own neighborhoods — in just the previous year.
That number rises to 60 percent among transgender people, who experience exceptionally high levels of unemployment, poverty, and homelessness. They are also stalked by violence, with a record 44 hate-motivated murders nationwide last year. Three transgender residents of North Carolina have already been murdered in 2021.
Black and Latino LGBTQ folks face greater poverty rates than communities of color generally. Less than half the states protect the community’s youth from bullying in school. Elders must often re-closet themselves, with nearly half of same-sex couples reporting discrimination in seeking senior housing.
But there is now hope Congress might finally act. For the first time, both Democrats and Republicans have put forward measures that add LGBTQ protections to our nation’s civil rights laws. The major disagreement between the two parties involves balancing the urgent need to protect LGBTQ people with the religious freedoms that Americans, including myself, cherish.
Finding a path to getting that job done is what legislators do when committed to solving problems. Senators Burr and Tillis can look to the 21 states — including our neighbor Virginia — with laws that prohibit anti-LGBTQ discrimination without compromising religious freedoms.
Washington can follow suit, with senators reaching across the aisle to end the divisive pattern that pits religious liberties against LGBTQ rights. Every major civil rights advance — from the 1964 Civil Rights Act to the Americans With Disabilities Act — has found the appropriate balance.
Senators Burr and Tillis: LGBTQ North Carolinians and their families and friends are counting on you.
Reverend Troy Lesher-Thomas is an Interim Pastor at the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill.
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