Rev. Al Sharpton's Weekly Blog

Real Religious Leaders Must Stand Up for Real Freedom

Mar 30, 2015

Freedom of religion -- the ability to practice our faith without fear of persecution -- is a basic right that we as Americans hold dearly. But what we also cherish -- and have fought tremendously to achieve -- is the equal protection of the right of all to eat, shop, walk, work and live where we choose without discrimination. So how is it that in 2015 the governing body of the state of Indiana has enacted legislation that leaves room for businesses to discriminate against members of the LGBT community under the guise of some sort of "religious liberty"? The Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by Governor Mike Pence last week, is one of the most biased pieces of state legislation we've seen in our modern era. The fact that it is cloaked in the name of religious freedom is particularly offensive to me as a member of the clergy who has been engaged in ministry and social justice work my entire life. This is a pivotal moment when all religious leaders must stand in unity for real freedom for everyone.

I first began preaching when I was just a boy, at the age of 4. I was initially ordained in the Church of God and Christ, a fundamentalist Christian denomination, and was re-baptized in 1994 by Rev. Dr. William Jones, a progressive Baptist who was a friend of the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 2003, when I came out publicly in support of marriage equality, many friends I preach for (I preach at about 80 churches a year) were upset, and some threatened to not invite me to deliver sermons. But I stood my ground, reminding them that since the age of 12, when I was appointed Youth Director of Operation Bread Basket by Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Jones, I had been a civil rights activist. That is when I first saw my civil rights and ministerial obligations as one and the same.

My religious conviction compels me to fight for civil rights and social justice; I don't divide the two. Each and every one of us must speak out against this egregious Indiana law. We cannot fight for civil rights for some; we must fight for all in order to protect our great nation and preserve what makes us so unique. Didn't racists use religion to justify their belief in the inferiority of Blacks? Didn't misogynists misquote the Bible to justify gender inequality? The blatant use of religion has always been a tool of bigots. It is important, religiously, to stand up and dramatically denounce this Indiana law and say that it in fact does not represent religion. Rather, it legalizes bigotry and discrimination.

It's difficult to comprehend how such laws and antiquated actions can even be in existence in this day and age. Sadly, there are in fact 19 other states that have legislation similar to Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But as a piece in The Atlantic highlights, Indiana's law is particularly troubling because it "makes a business's 'free exercise' right a defense against a private lawsuit by another person, rather than simply against actions brought by government." In other words, businesses can use this law to protect themselves against any discrimination or civil rights lawsuits brought against them.

The road to equality is often paved with struggles and challenges. When the good people of this country fought for desegregation, for example, some argued that it was too much federal "government intrusion." In fact, often when federal laws were enacted to protect citizens, those against progress would proclaim that states' rights were somehow being trampled upon. This isn't about government overreach or some notion of state or religious rights being infringed upon; rather, it is about freedom and equality for all Americans. One has a right to their religious beliefs, but one does not have the right to make their beliefs the law in a democracy. We do not live in a theocracy and should resist any move toward that while we face theocracies in other parts of the world.

Following our National Action Network annual convention next week, I hope to travel to Indiana and stand with religious leaders to rally against this law. Gays, lesbians and all members of the LGBT community must not be alone in this fight. And as a preacher, I want them to know that I unequivocally stand alongside them. May all religious leaders do the same.